Tefillin Bomber Strikes Again

Back in January 2010 a US Airways flight was diverted for the security concerns raised by a Jewish teenage boy putting on tefillin (phylacteries). I blogged about the Kentucky-bound airplane from New York that had to make an emergency landing in Philadelphia because the 17-year-old was wrapping his arm and head with the black leather straps and boxes used by Jews during the morning prayers.

The incident was actually quite humorous once it was determined that it was a misunderstanding and not an actual threat. My Dr. Seuss-inspired poem (“Oh, the Planes Gonna’ Blow”) about the tefillin take down of the plane was circulated widely around the Web during the days following the incident.

Now, it appears that tefillin has the capability to not only divert airplanes but also boats. The JTA.org reports that “an Israeli putting on tefillin set off a bomb scare on a New Zealand ferry. The captain of the inter-island ferry, who believed the boxes and leather straps looked like a bomb, reported his concerns to police during Sunday’s voyage between Wellington and Picton, New Zealand’s two main islands. Police detained the Israeli and his three fellow travelers when the ferry docked in Picton, where they were questioned and released.”

I wonder what the next mode of transportation will be that reports a security threat when a Jewish person starts to pray. Truthfully, this can be avoided with some education. Security personnel should be briefed about tefillin, which have been around for thousands of years, so they are no longer mistaken for bombs.

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

Bringing Light to Humanity on Hanukkah

Here is my Hanukkah message that was published on the Read the Spirit website. Read the Spirit’s editor David Crumm introduced my message by connecting it to the Retik family. Ben Retik, who lost his father in the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, lit the White House menorah last week. Crumm wrote:

Ben’s mother Susan might have retreated from the world in her grief. Instead, she and another 9/11 widow founded BeyondThe11th, a nonprofit group that works with widows in Afghanistan whose lives have been devastated by war and terrorism. Talk about shining one’s light to the whole world! Despite their loss, the Retik family has made the planet a better and safer place through their charitable work in helping widows half a world away rebuild their families’ lives.


Hanukkah: From Darkness to Light

A Chasidic story is told of a man entering a dark room. He is overwhelmed by the darkness.
“Don’t worry,” said his friend. “The darkness hits only at first. Soon your eyes will grow accustomed to it, and you will hardly notice the dark.”
“My friend,” replied the man, “that is our problem. Judaism teaches us to distinguish between lightness and darkness. But unfortunately, by becoming too accustomed to the situation, we begin to think of the darkness as light!”
Distinguishing between lightness and darkness is so much a part of who we are as the Jewish people. Each Saturday night, we bid farewell to Shabbat by distinguishing between lightness and darkness. But we make other distinctions as well. We acknowledge the separation between holy and secular, and between the six regular days of the week and the holiness of the Sabbath. We also proclaim that God has separated the Jewish people from all other peoples. For we have been chosen by God to be a holy people.
But what does this “chosenness” really mean? After all, it might even make some of us feel uncomfortable being the “chosen people” around our non-Jewish friends, colleagues, and neighbors. I’m reminded of the famous scene from Fiddler on the Roof, when Tevye calls out to God: “I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?”
Jewish people shouldn’t feel uneasy or uncomfortable with the notion that we are chosen. After all, it’s not about superiority or status, but rather responsibility. Jewish people have the responsibility to seek out justice in the world. We have to help repair our fractured world. The man in the Chasidic story wasn’t comforted by the fact that his eyes would eventually adjust to the dark—and he was on to something. It is our responsibility, as individuals and as a community, to see the darkness in the world and to create light.
This is what it means to be a people chosen by God. And this, I strongly believe, is the message of Hanukkah. Each night, we commemorate the miracle by increasing the light in this dark world. The rabbis of the Talmud taught that we increase the holiness; we don’t diminish it. Each night of Hanukkah, we increase the holiness in the world—and that is why God holds the Jewish people accountable. Why God has chosen us to be God’s people—responsible stewards of the earth, partners in fixing a broken world, and pursuers of shalom (peace) and tzedek (justice).
Jewish people have the responsibility to bring light to humanity through social justice. As a light unto the nations, we are obligated to think of ourselves and our actions as an example for the entire human race, outside of our own community. We must live our lives according to the words of God as articulated in our holy Torah: I the Lord have called you in righteousness, and will hold your hand, and will protect you, and make for you a covenant, to be a light unto the nations.
To be a “light unto the nations” means that when there is darkness in our world, we must be the guiding light, the symbol of leadership, the beacon of hope, and the impetus for change. We must lead the way out of the darkness and into the light. We do this by realizing that our efforts at both justice and righteousness must extend beyond our own people.
SPEAKING OUT; REACHING OUT
As Jews, we have an increased moral obligation to respond, to speak out, and to take action against ethnic cleansing regardless of the ethnicity, race or religion of the people being victimized. We have experienced horrific darkness, but we have always persevered and found the light. If “Never Again” is to be our watchword, reminding us of our persecution, then we must remain true to it. We must live up to that phrase, and when we see darkness engulfing other humans, we must not stand idly by and be passive. We must act.
My teacher, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg teaches the following about Hanukkah: “Pessimists and assimilationists have more than once informed Jews that there is no more oil left to burn. As long as Hanukkah is studied and remembered, Jews will not surrender to the night. The proper response, as Hanukkah teaches, is not to curse the darkness but to light a candle.” If all peoples light a candle, our world will be a much brighter place for all of us.
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

8th Night of Hanukkah

Last night was the final candle lighting of the eight-day Hanukkah holiday. It was also the only night that I didn’t have a chance to light the menorah with my children. I went straight from a private tutoring session to teach an adult education class, grabbing a quick bite to eat in between.

When I returned home at 9:30 p.m., my wife joined me to light the candles together. It reminded me of the Hanukkahs we celebrated together before children (“B.C.”). There was something quite spiritual about watching the flickering light of the fully lit menorah reflecting in the window.

We often think of Hanukkah as a children’s holiday with the dreidel games and gifts each night, but for just one night of this eight day Festival of Lights this year I really enjoyed being able to focus on the glowing candles without worrying if one of my kids was going to accidentally get burned while lighting the flames. It was nice to not immediately transition from the candle lighting to the materialistic gift giving, worrying that my children would enjoy and appreciate the presents we bought them. While I love sharing in the ritual menorah lighting with my children, the eighth night this year was a special gift.

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

Ending Kosher Nostra: How to Bring Sanity to the Kosher Certification Industry

Here is my recent post on The Detroit Jewish News blog:

There’s a joke I often tell about a conversation regarding the kosher laws between Moses and God. God dictates the Jewish dietary laws to the Israelite leader in easy to understand terms, but Moses repeatedly complicates these statutes. Finally, frustrated, God gives up and tells Moses to just do whatever he wants.

From the commandments to not cook a calf in its mother’s milk and the prohibition on eating certain animals, the kosher laws have become a very complex system of eating restrictions. To ensure the compliance of the kosher standards from the farm to the factory to the grocery store to the restaurant, an entire industry of supervision and certification was been established. In recent years, I’ve found myself entrenched in this world of hashgacha.

In her recently published book, Kosher Nation, Sue Fishkoff provides the reader with an insider’s perspective about what goes on in the kosher food industry on a daily basis. Each chapter details another aspect of the Jewish dietary ethic – how kosher food has conquered the U.S. market, the business of kosher certification, the rise and fall of the Jewish deli, the kashering of a hotel for a wedding, and the often scandalous production of kosher slaughtered meat. Fishkoff circles the country to explain the subtle nuances of “keeping kosher” in the 21st century. She travels as far as China to shadow a kosher supervisor checking for compliance in several factories. Fishkoff provides insight into the sometimes dirty politics in which the kosher certification agencies have notoriously engaged. From extortion and price gouging to fraud and general dishonesty, kosher certification has gotten a bad name.

My journey to the kosher certification profession was not planned. In 2008, I was hired as the rabbi of Tamarack Camps, with my main focus to supervise of the agency’s kosher kitchens. To adequately prepare for this new role, I returned to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York where I was ordained. Though I had served as a mashgiach (kosher supervisor) in the cafeteria as a rabbinical student, I required detailed instruction to oversee the large camping agency’s many industrial kitchens as a rav hamachshir (certifying rabbi).

This new position led to my private certification of a few bakeries, bagel stores, and a vegetarian restaurant with the eventual formation of my own kosher certification agency – Kosher Michigan. This experience has been nothing less than fascinating. I now certify a paper mill that makes paraffin wax paper for kosher foods, olive oil bottling at a spice company, a gourmet chocolate factory, a foodservice corporation that provides shelf-stable meals to areas hit by natural disasters, as well as several other businesses. I’m frequently called upon to kasher industrial and residential kitchens, consult Jewish organizations on kosher matters, and speak about the kosher food industry.

I have become accustomed to fielding many questions about my kosher certification. People want to know if “the Orthodox” (as if it’s a monolithic group) accepts my imprimatur. They want to know if “Conservative kosher” (their phrase) is really legitimate. I’m frequently asked to articulate my standards and demonstrate my knowledge. Without even understanding the term, they want to know if all of the food I certify is glatt (even the bagels!). Some are surprised that I conduct unannounced spot checks more often than many of my Orthodox colleagues.

As Fishkoff demonstrates in Kosher Nation, the kosher business has changed drastically over the past several years. She writes, “Kosher has become one of the country’s hottest food trends… A generation ago, kosher was a niche industry, the business of the country’s small minority of observant Jews… Today one-third to one-half of the food for sale in the typical American supermarket is kosher. That means more than $200 billion of the country’s estimated $500 billion in annual food sales is kosher certified.” Not bad for a religious tribe that accounts for less than 2% of the U.S. population.

And it’s not just that there’s more kosher food out there. The rules of the game have radically changed as well. So many proverbial fences have been erected around the kosher laws that no 19th century rabbi would recognize them. Rabbis today can make a modest living washing leafy vegetables and checking them for miniscule bug infestations. The ultra-Orthodox have ruled that such innocuous items as strawberries, Romaine lettuce, Brussels sprouts, smoked salmon, and water cannot be consumed because of either insects or microscopic copepods. Non-observant Jewish owners of kosher grocery stores, meat markets, and restaurants are no longer trusted to hold the keys to their own businesses.

A Mafia-like reputation (“Kosher Nostra”) has been attributed to the kosher certification industry. Fishkoff tells stories of strong-arm tactics and extortion when it came to kosher meat. “Corruption and scandal also plagued the processed food industry,” she writes. “Keeping kosher is a mitzvah, but giving kosher certification is a business. And that means money, politics, and all the other unpleasant temptations that can distract a Jew from fulfilling God’s commandments.” There’s a sordid history of lax supervision of kosher-for-Passover food, substitution of cheaper treif meat in butcher shops, and rabbis selling high priced kosher certifications with no oversight in exchange. Rabbi Don Yoel Levy, the head of the OK kosher agency was interviewed by Fishkoff. He told her, “Kashrus today is power and money. And unfortunately, it’s extremely competitive. Instead of people working together to improve kashrus, everybody tries to get business away from the other one.” Levy even blames kosher politics for his father’s death. He attributes the 1986 scandal that included death threats against the state inspectors to be the cause of his father’s demise.

I am frequently called by local business owners who have been interested in acquiring kosher certification for years, but have been turned off by the methods of the established agencies. I recently met with a store owner to discuss certifying her food market, which had previously been under kosher certification. When I told her that I wouldn’t confiscate her set of keys to her store even though she is not an observant Jew and that I donate the majority of my profits to local charities, she told me that I was “a breath of fresh air.”

Positive change, however, is afoot in the kosher world. Today, more people are increasingly concerned about the food they eat, where it comes from, and who is making it. They want to be assured that it is clean, fresh, safe, and healthy. More people have specialized diets because of lifestyle choices, health reasons, or religious values. Kosher is just another option in a category that includes vegan, organic, gluten-free, and heart smart. There is a growing non-Jewish demographic that is maintaining some form of a kosher diet. And the leaders of Reform Judaism, which once shunned kashrut, are now promoting adherence to the kosher laws on some level.

Like me, other Conservative rabbis around the country are launching kosher certification agencies. There may be four major agencies, but there are close to a thousand smaller ones. Getting rid of the monopoly enjoyed by some kosher agencies in communities will only help reduce the price of kosher food. Kosher certification, I maintain, is about trust. When dirty politics and corruption are allowed to enter, they only diminish the holiness that kosher observance intends. Ending “Kosher Nostra” will add sanity to the kosher industry.

We have become so far removed from the kosher laws of the Torah and Talmud that we focus less on why we keep kosher and more on how punctilious we can be, only to “out frum” the next person. We have become so concerned about everyone else’s kosher standards that the same laws enacted to keep our community united are being used to keep us from ever being able to eat together. I’m reminded of the joke about the ultra-pious man who dies and goes to heaven. When a colossal feast of the choicest, most expensive foods is laid out in front of him, he inquires with the ministering angel about the kosher certification there in heaven. When he’s told it is the Holy One, God himself, who has sanctioned the kashrut of the food he decides to play it safe and just orders a fruit plate.

My goals for Kosher Michigan are simple. I want to help create more options for the kosher consumer without exorbitant prices. I want to shift the focus of kosher certification to trust and the compliance of sensible standards, regardless of denominational affiliation. It does not necessarily follow that a restaurant owner who does not observe the Sabbath cannot therefore be trusted to maintain the strictures of the kosher laws in his establishment. And just because a non-Jew has looked at a bottle of wine does not mean it is no longer suitable for Jewish consumption. I want to help people ask educated, thoughtful questions about kosher certification, rather than resort to pejorative comments that seek to divide our people.

I consider it a great honor to have the responsibility of keeping my eye on food production and preparation to ensure proper compliance of our kosher laws. No matter why people choose to eat kosher, I want them to feel confident trusting my certification. I’m only one person, but if I can help make the kosher industry more “kosher,” it’s an important start.

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

Give Babs a Hand: Barbra Streisand Buys Three Torah Yads

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

After a decade-long $150 million campaign, the National Museum of American Jewish History officially opened November 14 in Philadelphia. The 100,000 square foot museum is on Philly’s Independence Mall.

The new museum’s gala grand opening had hundreds of donors who paid between $1,500 and $5,000 to be part of the celebration with Vice President Joe Biden, Jerry Seinfeld and Bette Midler.

I did a double take when I read what Barbra Streisand, who didn’t perform at the gala event, bought in the museum gift shop. According to JTA, “One of 18 individuals highlighted in the museum’s Only in America Gallery/Hall of Fame, which greets visitors on the first floor, Streisand made time to stop in the museum’s shop, where she spent $800 on three yads (Torah pointers) and silver candlesticks.”

Is Babs a regular Torah reader (I’d pay to hear that!) or are the yads gifts for friends? If Streisand wants to use her yad to read Torah in an Orthodox synagogue, I’d advise she first dresses up like a man. Here’s what that would look like:

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

Florida Panthers Fans Angry with Kippah Giveaway at Hockey Game

I saw this one coming. I originally blogged last week about the decision by the NHL’s Florida Panthers to give out yarmulkes (kippahs) to the fans at its Hanukkah game this past Tuesday night. One of the team’s representatives left a comment on my blog explaining that not every fan in attendance at the game would be receiving the free blue leather kippah embroidered with the Florida Panthers’ logo. Rather, only those who had purchased the Hanukkah game package would get the kippah. I suppose that’s still a better idea than “the first 5,000 Jews who enter the arena.”

Something told me that the majority of the fans at the game did not know that they had to buy the Hanukkah package to get the kippah. Before the game, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman (a brother of the Jewish AEPi fraternity by the way!) even referred to the giveaway, saying “If there’s a hat trick tonight the fans will throw yarmulkes like they’re Frisbees.”

Frank Reinstein, a local Detroit-area CPA who went to elementary and middle school with me, thought everyone at the game (man, woman and child) would be receiving a kippah and it was Frank’s boss who was the one who came up with the Hanukkah promotion.

Sure enough, not everything went as planned as the Sun Sentinel’s blog “The Business of Sports” explained. Blogger Sarah Talalay writes:

The news release sent out last Tuesday said the yarmulkes would be “given to all ticket-buyers.” What the release apparently didn’t make clear was that should have said “Panthers yarmulke given to those who buy a special ticket pack.” That’s how the Panthers amended the news item on floridapanthers.com, but only after the news release had been sent to the media. The media did not receive a corrected release.

Fans found out the hard way when they arrived at the game expecting the sweet dark blue yarmulke with the Panthers logo. “Two friends and I decided to check out the game because one of them loves to collect the crazy giveaways that hockey teams tend to promo,” Panthers fan Caity Kauffman said. Kauffman tweeted about her experience trying to get to the bottom of “yarmulke-gate” during last night’s game.

When Kauffman and her friends didn’t see arena employees handing out yarmulkes at the arena’s entrance, they asked around. They were told it was a group sales item and were unaware of the release that said “all ticket buyers.” Kauffman saw yarmulkes being given out a few seats away, but again was told they were for group sales.

With curiosity in full swing, Kauffman went to client services, where she gave her name and phone number, after being told the team would send out some yarmulkes. She ran into at least one other fan, who was irate, and they were far from the only ones.

“All in all, we just wanted to check out the yarmulke giveaway because it was a pretty unique promo,” Kauffman said. “We only pursued it because no one at the BAC [BankAtlantic Center] seemed like they knew what was going on, and couldn’t get solid answers. I’m not offended, just annoyed. It was just a promo that was falsely advertised, poorly carried out and then they didn’t own up to the poor execution.”

Panthers spokesman Matt Sacco said about 1,500 yarmulkes were given to group ticket buyers, who were pleased with the promotion.

“It was for people who bought the tickets for Jewish Heritage Night group night,” Sacco said. He said he could understand the confusion, but the team quickly changed the item on the team’s website.

Panthers President Michael Yormark issued this statement: “Based on the success of the biggest Hanukkah Party in South Florida last night during the Panthers-Avalanche game at the BankAtlantic Center, we are definitely considering expanding the program in years to come. Also, any fans that were at the game but did not get a Panthers yarmulke, I’d urge you to call our ticket sales department and speak to one of our sales representatives.”

Sounds to me like what was a well intentioned gimmick is now worthy of the penalty box!

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

Kosher Restaurant in NYC Gets Shot Down by New York Jets

The Vos Iz Neias blog reports that a New York Jets team official discovered that Prime KO Japanese Steakhouse, a popular kosher restaurant on the Upper West Side of Manhattan was serving menu items with a New York Jets theme. She ordered them to pull the “Green on Green Jets Salad” and “Jets Dragon Roll” off the menu.

Jets spokeswoman Jessica Ciccone called the Kosher Japanese Steakhouse a few weeks ago to complain that the restaurant’s items were not authorized by the team.

The dishes were created by Jets fan and restaurant chef Makoto Kameyama, who grew up in Tokyo playing football on his high-school team, the Mean Elephants (no word about any mean elephant entrées on the menu). On Sundays, Kameyama would watch NFL games on a big screen at the Sony Building in Ginza. The Jets’ decision to kill the salad and sushi roll might have brought some bad karma to the team — they lost to the Patriots 45-3 this past Sunday!

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

Florida Panthers Hanukkah Hockey Night

As I blogged about last Thursday, the Florida Panthers hockey team hosted its first Hanukkah Night tonight at the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise, Florida. It turns out that the black Panthers yarmulkes will be given out to the fans who pre-purchased the Hanukkah package, but the team will not discriminate between men and women.

Sunrise Sports & Entertainment listed all the special offerings for the celebration and encouraged fans to “join the biggest Hanukkah party in South Florida.”

On the list of what’s in store for the special Hanukkah game, I couldn’t figure out the last one’s connection to Hanukkah. Here’s the list:

  • A giant menorah lighting on the JetBlue Tarmac at 6:45 p.m.
  • Jewish music provided by Avimagic Entertainment
  • Kosher food available throughout the game in select locations
  • Panthers yarmulke given to all ticket-buyers
  • Postgame on-ice slap shots
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

My Ugandan National Parliament Endorsement

As a rabbi, I’m hesitant to publicly endorse any political candidates. First, I try to keep my politics private; and second, I don’t want to jeopardize the tax-exempt status of any non-profit organizations which I represent. However, I’m going to go out on a limb here and endorse my friend and rabbinic colleague for Uganda’s National Parliament.

Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, who was recently ordained at the American Jewish University, is running for National Parliament of Uganda. When Gershom is elected, he’ll be the first Jew ever elected to any national office in Uganda. What’s more is that he will be the first rabbi to be seated in nationally elected government outside of Israel. Very impressive!

The Be’chol Lashon website quotes Gershom explaining that his political mission is directly connected to his religious vision. He says, “It is important that local and national government officials be tolerant and foster a climate of understanding between religious groups.” Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, of Be’chol Lashon, explains that “his vision of religious tolerance runs counter to the discrimination he experienced growing up during the rule of Idi Amin Dada. Under Amin, Judaism was banned and the native Jewish community, called the Abayudaya, was persecuted.”

I first met Gershom Sizomu when he came with J.J. Keki on a speaking tour to the U.S. I found him to be a mensch who is only concerned with the best interests of his people. I hope that the Ugandan people will vote for Rabbi Gershom Sizoum in the February 18, 2011 National Parliament elections.

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

Best Jewish Apps for iPhone & Android

My list of the Best Jewish Apps of 2010 at The Jewish Week has generated a lot of attention. The list of thirty-three apps for the iPhone, iPad and Android phones has been reposted on several blogs around the Web. With over 300,000 apps available and over 7 billion downloads to date, there are quite a few Jewish apps to choose from. I separated the utilities from the novelties, and made sure to include the Jewish apps for the Android (full disclosure: I’m a Droid user).

My list includes Jewish texts and luachs (calendars), kosher restaurant databases and recipes, and a few kitschy but fun apps. Of course, after The Jewish Week published my picks I began receiving email messages from app developers around the country (and from down the street) complaining that I didn’t include their apps. Well, I couldn’t include all of them.

For Hanukkah alone there are dozens of apps that let users do everything from sing the blessings (Behrman House’s (iHanukkah) and light virtual menorah candles (iMenorah) to spin dreidels on the iPad (Captain Moustache’s Dreidel HD), catch jelly donuts (Catch the Sufgania), and learn the rules of the dreidel game (iDreidel).

As I wrote in the introduction to the list of the best Jewish apps, “As more Jewish people acquire the latest in handheld technology, there will be more Jewish-themed applications available for download. Some of these apps will be utilities for checking the Hebrew date or learning about the weekly Torah portion. Other apps will be novelties like making shofar sounds for Rosh HaShanah and grogger sounds on Purim. With many Jewish developers around the world, you can be certain there will be no dearth of Jewish apps in the coming year.”

Here’s the link to the list. And as aways, check out www.jewishiphonecommunity.org for a comprehensive listing of Jewish apps as they are released.

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