Categories
Homosexuality Keshet Orthodox Judaism Rabbi Teens

Religious Leaders Must Preach Tolerance & Compassion Toward LGBT Community

Last night, I saw the movie “It’s Kind of a Funny Story.” The movie, based on the 2006 novel by Ned Vizzini, deals with teenage depression and suicide in a very real and honest way. I might have reacted differently to this movie had I seen it before the recent wave of teen suicides in the LGBT community that have made national headlines. Each of the four teen characters in the movie suffer from depression in one way or another. And while none of them is homosexual, watching the movie I was forced to consider the responsibility that I, as a rabbi, have in preaching tolerance and compassion toward the LGBT community to eradicate this epidemic.

The high rate of suicide among gay and lesbian teens has been brought to light in the darkest way possible. Communities have been devastated by the news of gay teens being bullied to the point of taking their own lives. The reaction to these tragedies has been mixed, as have the reactions to the reactions. For example, I’m sure that Clint McCance, the vice president of the Midland, Arkansas School Board, never expected the reaction he received after posting his anti-gay rant on Facebook. That a leader in a school system could make such hurtful and shameful comments publicly on the Web about his fellow human beings is outrageous. It is up to religious leaders to shift the national conversation on LGBT issues to one that prioritizes human dignity and compassion.

On Tuesday, October 19, as Facebook users across the nation were changing their profile pictures to a purple hue to publicize the need for compassion toward the gay community and in memory of the gay teens that killed themselves, another tragedy was taking place. At Oakland University in Michigan, where I serve as a visiting professor of Jewish Studies, yet another gay teen ended his life after being bullied relentlessly since coming out a few months ago. Less than a week earlier on Oakland’s campus, a lunchtime program sponsored by the Gender and Sexuality Center screened the film “Bullied,” a teaching tolerance documentary. The banner advertising the event still hung in the hallway of the student union in the days following Corey Jackson’s death, as if to say “Something more must be done.”

To show my support to the LGBT community, along with millions of others, I added a purple tint to my Facebook and Twitter profile pictures on Spirit Day. All of the responses I received were positive and supportive, except for the comment left on my Facebook page by a politically conservative Orthodox Jew. He simply added the link to a New York Post article by Maggie Gallagher, president of the National Organization for Marriage, titled “Don’t blame me for gay teen suicides.” I read the article and then felt even sadder. Gallagher argues that she doesn’t have blood on her hands when gay teens are bullied and kill themselves. She conveniently shifts the conversation to the gay marriage debate, but at issue here is allowing gay and lesbian teens to feel pride and comfort in society so they don’t get bullied, fall into depression, and eventually take their own lives. Until this horrific trend ends, all Americans have blood on our collective hands.

My teacher, Rabbi Steven Greenberg, recently wrote a powerful opinion piece in The New York Jewish Week, titled “The Cost of Standing Idly By.” The first article of Greenberg’s I ever read was in a rabbinical school class at the Jewish Theological Seminary when he was still a closeted gay man using the pseudonym “Jacob Levado” (a reference to the patriarch Jacob of the Hebrew Scriptures feeling alone). Here, Greenberg relates what happened when he and his partner relocated from New York City to Cincinnati. Soon after they arrived, the rabbi of the local Orthodox congregation called apologetically to inform him that he and his partner were not welcome to attend the synagogue based on a ruling from another rabbi. Greenberg contacted the rabbi who issued the ruling and shared with him that “people who are gay and lesbian who want to remain true to the Torah, are in a great deal of pain. Many have just left the community. Some young gay people become so desperate they attempt suicide.”

Most people would expect the religious leader to respond to that last sentence with some amount of compassion, perhaps deep sadness. However, he replied, “Maybe it’s a mitzvah (commandment) for them to do so.” The speechless Greenberg asked for clarification and was told that what he heard was precisely what the rabbi intended to say. In other words, since homosexuals are guilty for capital crimes according to the Torah, perhaps it might be a good idea for them to do the job themselves. Wow! I wonder how many Jewish people will read that statement and question if this is the right religion for them.

Rather than let this uncompassionate individual silence him or force him to find a more inclusive community, Greenberg came up with a list of three steps his colleagues in the Orthodox rabbinate, and leaders in Orthodox institutions, can and should take at this time. He encourages them to sign the Statement of Principles, which says 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.” Second, he calls on Orthodox institutions to sign a letter, initiated by the LGBT advocacy group Keshet, condemning bullying and homophobia in the Jewish community. Third, he states that Orthodox institutions must immediately cut off any support or endorsement of so-called “reparative therapy.”

I would take Greenberg’s call to action a step further and call upon all religious leaders, regardless of faith, to advocate for tolerance and compassion toward the LGBT community. We all stand firm in trying to eradicate the other stressors leading to teenage depression and suicide. Why should the bullying of gay teens be any different? This epidemic is only made worse by the inflammatory comments of people like the Orthodox rabbi in Cincinnati who proposed that it’s a mitzvah for gay teens to kill themselves and Clint McCance, a school board official who wrote on Facebook, “It pisses me off though that we make special purple fag day for them. I like that fags can’t procreate. I also enjoy the fact that they often give each other AIDS and die.”

At this stage it is no longer about the heated and divisive issues like gay marriage or “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” It is now a matter of life and death. Teens being bullied until they commit suicide isn’t a political issue; it’s a human issue. Religious leaders across this country: Please stand up and put an end to this national tragedy.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller
Categories
American Jews Conservative Judaism Orthodox Judaism Rabbi Reconstructionist Judaism Reform Judaism Synagogues

Jay Michaelson On Taking the Boring Out Of Shul

I just read Jay Michaelson’s spot-on article in the Forward, “Rethinking Egalitarianism:
Are We Leveling the Playing Field Too Low?”
. Michaelson seems to always have his pulse on the Jewish community, and his perspective is not limited to only one denomination or to what’s going on in New York City.

His article tackles several problems in synagogues today and I agree with him on most counts. I disagree, however, that egalitarianism has much to do with the malaise one finds in most non-Orthodox congregations today. He begins by introducing his friends who emigrated from the famous B.J. (B’nai Jeshurun) on the Upper West Side to a mid-size Jewish community in the South. When they couldn’t find a shul as invigorating and active as B.J., they settled for the Modern Orthodox congregation despite their egalitarian leanings. Not finding a shul like B.J. is a common complaint for people who leave this dynamic ruach-filled NYC congregation and go elsewhere. In fact, as a rabbi I’ve heard dozens of people exclaim after visiting B.J. just once, “Why can’t we recreate the B.J. experience at our shul?” (Newsflash: It’s more than just Argentine rabbis and musical instruments!)

More than “egal doesn’t matter anymore,” what I think Michaelson is arguing is that the heimishe quality found in Orthodox shuls needs to be a goal for Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative shuls. The attempts to make services more inclusive and accessible to everyone by calling page numbers, over-explaining and over-simplifying the liturgy, and presenting English readings with confusing themes that pose theological problems have caused a general malaise in these services. Not to mention, most Reform and Conservative services are taking place in buildings that are too large to create any sense of warmth or heimishe ambience.

Michaelson is correct about the roots of this culture. He writes:

The reason for this is historical: Reform and Conservative grew out of German Reform Judaism, which aped German Protestantism and tried to offer an edifying, formal service of moral instruction and beautiful music. It’s true, that this formality still does work for some people today — and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that — but has there ever been a sociological study to quantify its appeal? I’ll wager that these antique, even archaic forms work only for those who know and feel comfortable with them. But isn’t that exactly the complaint lodged against traditional Orthodoxy — that it includes some, but not others? If what we’re interested in is inclusiveness and egalitarianism, then we should try to offer a satisfying spiritual experience to as many people as possible.

Non-Orthodox shuls need to spend the next decade focusing more on the kavanah (the unbound spiritual search for devotion and intention) and less on the keva (the mindless following of the rote). The Orthodox service is less robotic, thereby allowing individuals to move at their own pace and find their own comfort zone within the service. I concur with Michaelson that synagogue leaders seeking to invigorate the service and empower the membership need search no farther than Rabbi Elie Kaunfer’s book Empowered Judaism, where Kaunfer writes “What the Jewish world needs is not more dumbing-down but more empowerment of individuals to opt in if they so desire.”

I also appreciated Michaelson’s apt view of how children should be treated in shul. He writes, “Of course, the kids ran around themselves too, as is the de facto culture in many traditional places of worship. This, my friend observed, was far better for the children’s sanity and their parents’ prayer lives. A few decades ago, we were told that the family that prays together, stays together. But if the family stays together in synagogue, often no one prays at all.”

This article should be required reading for synagogue leaders. There’s a lot we can learn from the culture that permeates Orthodox synagogues on Shabbat mornings.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller
Categories
Celebrities Hollywood Humor Jewish Social Justice

Star-Studded American Jewish World Service Public Service Announcement

I often hear complaints that Jewish organizations don’t market themselves well. Even when they try to be cool and attract the younger demographic, they often fail by being hokey or forcing the humor.

Well, the American Jewish World Service has solved that problem. The solution is as simple as having Judd Apatow round up his A-List celeb friends and giving them a hilarious script to read on camera. And that’s exactly what Apatow did for the 25th anniversary of the American Jewish World Service, which celebrated that milestone as well as the 70th birthday of the AJWS director Ruth Messinger at a $1,000 per ticket event at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

The video is extremely funny, but it’s also a bit racy with some of comedian Sarah Silverman’s patented minority humor. For that reason (and probably a few others), the public service announcement begins with a disclaimer that it is not approved by AJWS.

I considered listing my favorite parts of the PSA, but there are just too many. The video includes Don Johnson, Gilbert Gottfried, Sarah Silverman, John Mayer, Jerry Seinfeld, Susan Sarandon, Sir Patrick Stewart, Andy Samberg, Ken Jeong, Tracy Morgan, Helen Hunt, Dane Cook, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Denis Leary, Triumph the Insult Comedy Dog (Yes, he’s Jewish!), and many others.

Watch the entire video to the end so you don’t miss celebrities trying to speak Yiddish, Ben Stiller suggesting to rename the organization “JAWS” to get publicity on Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, Brian Williams attempting a Tevye impersonation, and Lindsey Lohan shouting “Challah!”

Okay, here’s the video:

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

Aaron Sorkin is Not Mark Zuckerberg’s Rabbi

In Entertainment Weekly‘s review of “The Social Network,” there is a wonderful quote from the film’s writer Aaron Sorkin (of “The West Wing” fame). In defending his decision to make the movie, which is critical of Facebook’s founder, Sorkin explains that he is not Mark Zuckerberg’s rabbi.

Here’s the entire quote:

The famously fast-talking Sorkin turns almost somber as he discusses the harm his movie could do to the 26-year-old tech tycoon’s reputation. “I’ll be honest with you, there were times when I had misgivings, when I felt like, he’s just too young, and a movie fires such a loud cannon shot, that maybe I shouldn’t do this,” says Sorkin. Then, sounding surer, he adds, “It’s not my job to help his image. I’m not his press rep or his rabbi. But in the end, I didn’t feel like I was damaging him. I felt like I was painting a painting of him, as opposed to taking a picture of him.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller
Categories
Celebrities Humor Jewish Television

Grover or Telly: Who’s More Jewish?

Here’s my latest blog post for Community Next’s “Rabbi J in the D”

When asked who is the biggest Jewish celebrity on Sesame Street, most people immediately respond “Mr. Hooper.” And that’s not a bad answer since both Mr. Hooper and his alter-ego Will Lee were Jewish.

However, there are two Muppets who are competing over the award for the biggest Yid. And if you guessed Elmo, you’re wrong. Elmo is not a Jewish name and based on the hours of research I did (you can ask Count exactly how many) it would appear that Elmo is actually a Presbyterian.

I’ve managed to narrow the field down to Grover and Telly. In the video clips below you can watch Grover discuss the need for a day of rest. The Shomer Shabbos furry blue Muppet seems to really find inner peace and spirituality on Shabbat.

The second video shows Telly teaching the viewing audience to play Dreidel. He’s either a true Hanukkah-lover or he has a serious gambling problem.

So, you be the judge. Is it Shabbos Grover or Dreidel Telly? (Leave your vote in the “comments” section.)

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller
Categories
American Jews Conservative Judaism Detroit Orthodox Judaism Rabbi Rabbi Jason Miller Reconstructionist Judaism Reform Judaism

Labels Can Be Good and Bad

I’ve been thinking a lot about labels lately. I recently wrote an op-ed about denominational labels in Judaism that was published in the Detroit Jewish News and on the Huffington Post website. In it, I explained how ambivalent I am about labeling individuals because these labels don’t always help us understand the individual better. Calling a Jewish person an “Orthodox Jew” doesn’t tell us much about them. In fact it only leads to misperceptions (Are they Modern Orthodox or Ultra-Orthodox? Are they actually unobservant, but affiliate with an Orthodox congregation?).

The analogy I’ve used several times in the Melton Scholars course on denominations that I’ve been teaching this fall has been that one could walk into ten different ice-cream parlors and find that each parlor sells an ice-cream labeled as “strawberry.” Yet, despite the identical label, each strawberry ice-cream will actually taste quite different. As I wrote, the woman who labels her religious affiliation on her Facebook profile as “Recon-newel-ortho-conserva-form” isn’t confused, hazy or even necessarily post-denominational. Rather, she is articulating the notion that we don’t have to choose just one label. There is much more cross-denominational activity today, and based on reader comments to my op-ed on Huffington Post, this is just as true in many other faiths as well.

In thinking of a photo I could use to complement my op-ed, I decided that a car bumper is often used to display ones ideological, political, and religious identity and affiliation. I imagined a car bumper with bumper stickers representing all the trans-denominational activities in which I’m involved –the pluralistic Jewish camp where I work, the Conservative synagogue where I’m a member and my children go to school, the Reform temple where I teach, the Reconstructionist congregation where I serve as the part-time rabbi, the Chabad-affiliated special needs for children organization I support, the community day school my child attends, and so on.

I didn’t manage to include all of those institutions, but I took a photo of the bumper on my wife’s minivan with several of these magnets (magnets seem to be the new bumper stickers and it’s nice that they’re temporary in these more transient times). In the end, I decided not to use that photo to accompany the HuffPo posting. (The photo on HuffPo is of a liberal Jew and a traditional Jew arguing as my friend and local rabbinic colleague Rabbi Arnie Sleutelberg looking on.)

I did, however, post the “bumper stickers” photo (above) on Facebook where it was viewed by my friend and colleague Rabbi Paul Yedwab of Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, Michigan. Rabbi Yedwab opened his sermon this Shabbat by mentioning my photo:

A friend of mine, Rabbi Jason Miller, whom many of you know, recently tagged a photo on his Facebook page showing a car bumper with a Temple Israel bumper sticker magnet (available by the way, on the table just outside the door if you’d like to sport one on your vehicle.) And, in this picture, right next to the Temple Israel sticker, is a Friendship Circle bumper sticker, a Hillel Day School bumper sticker and a Tamarack Camps sticker as well. And the caption under the photo reads: “Time to get a second bumper.”

I have long been fascinated by this concept of labels. Is the owner of a car really defined by the labels on her bumper? And if she were, how many bumpers would she need to let us know that she is a proudly Jewish, caring mom, tree hugger, vegetarian, Zionist, who is politically moderate, loves animals, nature, Swirlberry frozen yogurt, crossword puzzles, Gucci, Glee and her alma mater. Forget a second bumper; she would need a tractor trailer.

In our Torah portion, God is speaking to Abraham and telling him that he is going to have to take his son up to Mt. Moriah, there to sacrifice him on the altar. But the words God uses to break the bad news are very deliberate. Take your son, God begins, bincha, and then y’echidcha, your only son, asher ahavtah, the son you love, and then and only then, God finally identifies Isaac by name.

Now classically, the Midrash tells us that God stretches out his description of Isaac in order to break the bad news to Abraham slowly…gently. But I am not satisfied with that explanation. After all Abraham was not an idiot; he knew exactly to whom God was referring from the very beginning of that dreadful conversation.

So here is another interpretation. In our tradition God is the one being in all the universe who is ineffable, which means beyond labels. God is not a male or a female, a Democrat or a Republican (although you would never know it from some of the political ads that have cropped up recently). And, according to the Torah, God does not even have a name other than Ehiyeh Asher Ehiyeh, I will be what I will be, or in other words, you can’t put a label on Me. And therefore it follows that, since we human being are made in God’s image, God understands us too as holistic, complex, multi-dimensional creatures. No single label can fully capture the essence of a person. You know, that rabbi with the gray hair at Temple Israel. No, no, not him….the other one…the short one. Oh! Rabbi Yedwab. Labels really never tell the whole story.

So God tries to supply a multi-dimensional description of Isaac, whom after all is so much more than his position in the family, or the feelings his father has for him, or even his name. You know, Abraham: Isaac, the one whose essence is way beyond what any name, label or verbal description can possibly capture, your son, Yitzchak.

Rabbi Yedwab goes on in his sermon to mention some interesting new research that has been done recently into the field of language and epistemology, and then offers some suggested rules for communicating with our “necessarily insufficient words.” One of his rules is to stop communicating in Cyberspace. As a tech-embracing rabbi, I can’t say I agree with that proposed rule, although I concur that we all need to be mindful of how we communicate through technology.

Overall, I agree with Rabbi Yedwab’s message. Just like God, we humans are beyond labels. It is all too easy to assign labels to everyone we know and everyone we read about. The alternative is to use our God-given ability to communicate in order to learn about others. Rather than asking them what kind of Jew they are, we should ask more specific questions about their beliefs and their doubts, their affiliation, their education and their faith history. We should ask them what gets them out of bed in the morning and what do they do to recharge their spiritual batteries. And then we should listen.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller
Categories
Communication Community Internet Marketing Rabbi Rabbi Jason Miller Synagogues Web

Making Your Website Work for Your Synagogue or Jewish Organization

Cross-posted to the Jewish Techs blog (The New York Jewish Week)


Quite often I get asked to consult synagogues on their Web presence. The first thing I do is take a look at their current Web site and try to determine in which year it was created. I can usually tell its production date within a few years based on several factors. I then explain what a Web site should do today. After I explain its function, I let them know that the look of the site matters less today than its functionality. Today’s Web site needs to be an extension of the community the synagogue is trying to create (or in some cases, has already created).

If someone’s trying to find your synagogue’s location, they can use Google Maps. But if they want to interact with the rabbi about last week’s sermon, or find out who else is attending a class, or make a contribution online, or update their membership record (see: Chaverweb), then they will need to access the synagogue Web site.
In a brilliant article, Beth Frank Backman explains the need for today’s Web sites to facilitate community building. It should be required reading for every synagogue and rabbi interested in making social media and the other technology of today work for them in their mission.
Here is her article and I can only hope it’s prescriptions are followed. All emphasis in boldface is mine.
Does Your Website Push Information or Facilitate Community Building?
By Beth Frank Backman
Social media is much more than technology. It challenges us to rethink the nature and purpose of organizations and the reasons why we meet face to face. In doing so it will eventually force us to rethink the nature and role of the synagogue.
Will the synagogue of the future continue to be a coordination hub for Jewish education, bar and bat mitzvah preparation, Jewish identity activities, and prayer? Or will most of these functions move elsewhere, making the synagogue little more that a “meet-up” for ritually required prayer and life cycle events? Will it even be needed for those purposes?
In the future, even Hebrew school and bar/bat mitzvahs may no longer be a driving force in synagogue membership. Why cart kids half way across town to go to Hebrew school if the same learning can be had one-on-one via Skype? Imagine a world where bar and bat mitzvah tutors from Israel, Venezuela, San Diego and New York can be found in an on-line directory and are only a Skype call away. Imagine a world where one can find on the web free lance rabbis and cantors to lead private Shachrit and Mincha services in the Catskills, Rockies or Israel.
Imagine a world where kids form Jewish identity via summer camp and on-line networking with their camp friends throughout the year. Imagine a world where Jewish kids across the city keep in touch via Twitter and meet up at the movie theater or mall on Saturday night. What then happens to the traditional synagogue youth group? Why pay exorbitant synagogue dues just for Hebrew school training or the opportunity to participate in a youth group?
Much depends on how quickly synagogues see the opportunities of social media and incorporate them into their mission. Social media is allowing the traditional functions of the synagogue to be deconstructed and moved out of the synagogue. Many of these “imagined” services are already here and are beginning to generate loyalty.
This presents severe challenges for synagogues. The upcoming generation of 20 somethings sees on-line and off-line relationships as complements of each other.They expect communities where on and off line life create synergy with one another. Technology is fundamentally social and creates the infrastructure needed to maintain social relationships.
The current membership of many synagogues grew up in a world where real community is face to face. Technology is little more than a tool for delivering information. As a result of these differences, it sometimes hard for current membership to understand the need for a new type of on-line presence. When budgets are short there is little incentive to create a website for the Jewish community who has not yet shown up in the synagogue door. But if nothing is done, it is quite possible that the 20-something crowd may never show up.
Despite the challenges, at first glance it looks like synagogues are beginning to bite into social media. According to a study released by Jvillage Network, 66% of synagogues responding had a Facebook page. But a closer look at the data paints a very different picture.
Social media is much more than Facebook and Twitter. Even these classic social media tools can be used in ways that essentially ignore social media. Rather social media is an approach to technology that sees technology primarily as a way to create rich personalized two-way and multi-way connections criss-crossing a group of people.
To really grasp how a synagogue understands and uses social media we need to dig deeper and look at how and what kind of information is being shared on a website, Facebook page or twitter account. How does it build relationships? Is the information being pushed outward at people or are there genuine and personalized exchanges that create strong social bonds between members? When we look at how these tools are used, it is clear that synagogues have barely caught onto the idea of social media:
  • It appears that none of the synagogues surveyed had primarily community generated content and only 21% have blogs where community members can comment. In general, website updates are centralized in the hands of staff people or a dedicated volunteer. Content is being pushed from the synagogue to the members and occasionally from member to synagogue, but almost never from member to member.

  • Furthermore content pushed from the synagogue to members tends to be impersonal. While 49% of congregations updated their website with Jewish themed content and most had synagogue calendars, only 7% let members view their membership balances on line and only 4% use their website to help parents monitor their child’s progress in Hebrew school.

  • Personalized information moving from member to congregation tends to be limited to administrative matters: membership application, Hebrew school registration, RSVPs and payment for synagogue events. Even then less than 30% of congregations had one or more of those services. Only 14% had volunteer sign-up tools and only 2% could make changes to their membership accounts.

  • The impersonal nature of the websites is further underscored by the limited opportunities that members have to personalize their interaction with the website. Only 3% provide members a customized home page. Only 14% let users download the synagogue calendar into their personal calendars. 40% lack search functions making it impossible for users to go directly to the content most important to them.

  • Even support of off-line community building is weak. Only 15% provided their membership directory on line. Only 3% stream religious services for house-bound community members.

  • On the other hand, 40% accept on line donations. One has to wonder what message is being sent to members when donation features are more prevalent than features that support personalized member to synagogue communication.

  • The sense that websites are being primarily used to push information to members rather than to facilitate community building is also reinforced by an apparent lack of interest in even passive sources of community feedback such as website analytics. 66% of synagogues either are not or do not know how to use analytic tools to monitor website usage.
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller
Categories
Celebrities Education Hollywood Humor Movies Television

Why Tony Danza Should Stay Out of the Classroom (& Reality TV)

Here’s my latest blog post for Community Next’s “Rabbi J in the D” (a Jewish celeb blog):

One evening in the summer of 2000 when I was working as a chaplain intern at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, I walked into one of those family waiting rooms outside of the patient unit. The television was turned on to a new reality TV show called “Survivor.” I watched for about ten minutes and then promised myself that I would no longer watch reality television. Ever. Again.

So, it’s been over a decade and reality TV has taken us from people trying to survive on a deserted island to families with too many kids and too many problems. From celebrities in need of rehab and dance lessons to Italians in New Jersey. I still don’t watch any of that. Some would say it’s my loss for not watching “The Bachelor” or “American Idol,” but I think it’s a wise move.

But then I heard that Tony Danza was coming back to TV. This time he wouldn’t be a housekeeper, but a public high school teacher. And I thought to myself, “This is not going to go very well.” I had to tune in (or at least set my DVR since I’m a little busy as a rabbi on Friday evenings!).

If you haven’t seen A&E’s “Teach: Tony Danza,” I recommend you don’t. The former “Who’s The Boss” and “Taxi” star is teaching 10th grade English for this new reality show. When I watched a little bit of the show, I immediately thought about all the other actors who would be better teachers than Tony Danza. In fact, since this is a Jewish celebrity blog, I came up with a list of Jewish actors who already have teaching experience on TV or the big screen.

Here’s my list:

Richard Dreyfuss (“Mr. Holland’s Opus”)

Ben Stein (“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”)

Bridgette Wilson (Veronica Vaughn in “Billy Madison”)
*She’s not Jewish, but her husband, Tennis player Pete Sampras, has a Jewish paternal grandmother

Jeremy Piven (“Old School”)

Harry Shearer (Voice of Seymour Skinner on “The Simpsons”)

Gabe Kaplan (“Welcome Back Kotter”)

Honorable Mentions (They’re not Jewish):

  • Paul Gleason (“Breakfast Club”)
  • Dennis Haskins (Mr. Belding in “Saved By the Bell”)
  • Robin Williams (“Dead Poet Society”)
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger ( “Kindergarten Cop”)
  • Tina Fey (“Mean Girls”)

The bottom line is: Anyone but Tony Danza!
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller
Categories
Facebook Jewish Judaism and Technology Rabbis Synagogues Twitter

Synagogues and New Technology

Cross-posted to the Jewish Techs blog (The NY Jewish Week)

Yoram Samets, of Jvillage Network in Burlington, Vermont, wrote an interesting essay for the eJewishPhilanthropy blog titled “Purposeful and Passionate: Synagogues in the Age of Facebook.”

Ultimately, I think he was being too delicate with synagogues by letting them know that it’s okay to move slowly in adapting to new technology. He writes that “synagogues lagging behind cultural change is nothing new. In fact, there are those who would say synagogues should operate from a thoughtful, process-driven perspective and adopt change slowly. In essence, I would agree with that. The challenge is all in the balance.”

I agree that synagogues need to maintain balance and be sure of themselves as they transition to new technology (social media, Web 2.0, online learning, etc.), but I’m for pushing them to move quicker. They’re very good at “slow.” The successful results will come when the synagogues pick up the pace.

Whenever I talk to synagogue leaders and rabbis about the adoption of new technologies, I encourage them to “just do it,” rather than waiting to go through the normal (read: slow) process within the institution. By the time a committee is formulated and it meets six times to decide if the synagogue should have a blog, the youth group should have an official Facebook presence, and the rabbi should be tweeting, we’ll already be on to the next “Big Thing.” Four years ago, I led a Webinar for Darim Online to teach rabbis how to start blogging. Some of them said they would need to get permission from the board first. Rather than going through the red tape, I encouraged these rabbis to just start a blog and post some of their thoughts regarding the weekly Torah portion. Some of those rabbis have thanked me in the ensuing years for pushing them to open their “Torah” up to a borderless audience on the Web. They soon realized that in the 21st century, their wisdom shouldn’t only be disseminated to their synagogue membership and no further.

There are so many opportunities for synagogues to capture through social media. If rabbis wait for young people to come in the front door, they’ll be waiting a long time. Networking is outreach and outreach is networking. I’ve been asked to officiate at the wedding of a young couple while chatting on Facebook late at night with the groom, a former high school student of mine. Synagogues should be jumping at the opportunities for innovative approaches to community building, scholarship, and engagement. I think Phillip Brodsky’s novel idea of a Social Sermon through the use of social media is a great concept that synagogues should adopt. Synagogues need to be pushed, not coddled, into the Age of Facebook.

Back to the Samets article. He writes, “Synagogues have the same opportunity of using technology to build a bridge between the synagogue experience and today’s culture. Technology needs to be an outward-looking tool for greater connectedness for the community. While there are a number of creative synagogues doing remarkable outreach and engaging more members, too few synagogues have been able to emulate their example and create an operational model that will lead them and their communities to a stronger future… Technology is only a tool. And when used to its maximum benefit, it is a tool that enhances our purpose, our mission, and our movement.”

In these fast-moving technology-driven times, Samets comes up with four P’s that synagogues must look to in order to reclaim our Jewish movement in today’s American culture: “Purpose, Passion, People, Projects – the rest is all detail… And through the process you will find out the power of the potential of connectedness in the community, in the synagogue and online.”

Lisa Colton, of Darim, blogging at her organization’s JewPoint0, writes about the Jewish New Media Fund. Essentially, three of the nation’s largest Jewish foundations – the Righteous Persons Foundation, the Jim Joseph Foundation, and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation – announced recently that their newly created endeavor, the Jewish New Media Innovation Fund, will help energize the community to focus on the need for new media innovations, and to help bring them to life. I hope synagogues take note (and full advantage) of this great opportunity.

Technology isn’t going to slow down for anyone… not even synagogues!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller
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NJ Jewish Standard & Carl Paladino

While last week’s decision by the New Jersey Jewish Standard to apologize for the inclusion of a gay wedding announcement and then retract the apology made big news, I didn’t have a chance to weigh in on it. But now, that New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino has essentially done the same thing regarding the anti-gay comments he made to a group of Hasidic Jews, I thought I’d comment on both matters.

Newspapers, and especially Jewish newspapers, will never be able to please everyone. Stating that the newspaper is for the entire community is actually a shortsighted mission statement because every Jewish community will have its factions that neither read nor care about what is published in certain Jewish newspapers. Whether it is the decision to run advertisements for non-kosher restaurants or print interfaith wedding announcements, the Orthodox community will boycott the paper. And a Jewish newspaper that has a bias toward the Orthodox won’t be of much concern to a progressive audience.

Ultimately, what happened at the NJ Jewish Standard was neglect. The paper’s editorial board and staff neglected to have a thoughtful process about whether to publish gay wedding (and engagement) announcements in the first place. And when there was backlash from the Orthodox, they should have debriefed on the matter, gathered information, and sought counsel from local rabbis and Jewish leaders before issuing an apology. The quick decision to apologize for publishing the engagement of Avi Smolen and Justin Rosen (who, by the way, seem like a very nice couple and will be married by my colleague Rabbi Josh Gruenberg) and then making the statement that the paper will never again run such an announcement turned into a public relations nightmare. It took days until James Janoff, the publisher, issued a retraction of the editor’s statement which said, “The Jewish Standard has always striven to draw the community together, rather than drive its many segments apart. We have decided, therefore, since this is such a divisive issue, not to run such announcements in the future.”

The engagement announcement of former Camp Ramah in Nyack staffers
Avi Smolen & Justin Rosen, who will be married this month.

In a statement posted to the paper’s website, Janoff said the New Jersey Jewish Standard probably should not have reversed its policy so quickly, “responding only to one segment of the community.” He said he is now holding meetings with local rabbis and community leaders, and will be printing many of the letters “that have been pouring in” on the issue. Without saying that the paper will print same-sex marriage announcements in the future, my sense is that in time they will.

Now on to Carl Paladino, who I’m convinced is a wish that was granted to Jon Stewart for his last birthday. Today’s New York Times reports that the alliance between Republican Carl Paladino and Yehuda Levin, an Orthodox rabbi from Brooklyn, has fallen apart, with the rabbi denouncing Paladino on Wednesday for his apology over remarks he had made about homosexuality on Sunday. It turns out that Rabbi Levin wrote Paladino’s anti-gay speech, so he was obviously angered when Paladino did a 180 and apologized for his “poorly chosen words” and said he would “fight for all gay New Yorkers’ rights” if elected governor.

I’m not really sure how Paladino could be so naive to think that, in the 24-hour news cycle era, his offensive anti-gay remarks wouldn’t be broadcast all over the country within hours. During a meeting with a small Orthodox congregation that was arranged by Rabbi Levin, Paladino said that children should not be brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality was acceptable, and then he criticized his Democratic opponent, Andrew Cuomo, for marching with his daughters in New York City’s gay pride parade. While his comments obviously went over well with the Hasidic group, they didn’t play very well for the rest of the world.

There are some pretty funny lines in the NY Times story including Rabbi Levin explaining where he was and what he was doing when he learned of Paladino’s apology (emphasis is mine):

Rabbi Levin said he was especially upset that Mr. Paladino gave him no notice that he planned to back away from the comments. “I was in the middle of eating a kosher pastrami sandwich,” Rabbi Levin said. “While I was eating it, they come running and they say, ‘Paladino became gay!’ I said, ‘What?’ And then they showed me the statement. I almost choked on the kosher salami.”

So, was it a kosher pastrami or kosher salami sandwich, Rabbi Levin? And I love how he had to mention that it was “kosher.” Did he think that folks would question whether he was eating a non-kosher sandwich?

The Times then had to clarify that Paladino hadn’t actually become gay (of course):

Mr. Paladino, of course, had not become gay, but had announced that he wanted to clarify that he embraced gay rights and opposed discrimination. In explaining his views, Mr. Paladino and his aides noted that he had a gay nephew who worked for the campaign.

So, what did Rabbi Levin have to say about Paladino’s gay nephew?

“He discovered now he has a gay nephew?” the rabbi said. “Mazel tov! We’ll make a coming-out party!”

So, my question is: If the Hasidic Rabbi Yehuda Levin makes a coming-out party for Carl Paladino’s gay nephew, will the New Jersey Jewish Standard announce it in their paper? You just couldn’t make this stuff up!

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