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Open Letter to Glenn Beck

What follows is the Wall Street Journal full-page ad of an open letter from the Jewish Funds for Justice and signed by 400 rabbis calling on Fox News to sanction commentator Glenn Beck for his “over-the-top” attacks on George Soros. Kudos to Simon Greer and Mik Moore of Jewish Funds for Justice on this initiative.

Glenn Beck:
George Soros, who as a child in Hungary survived the Holocaust by living with a non-Jewish family “used to go around with this anti-Semite and deliver papers to the Jews and confiscate their property and then ship them off. And George Soros was part of it. He would help confiscate the stuff. It was frightening. Here’s a Jewish boy helping send the Jews to the death camps.”
November 11, 2010

Roger Ailes:
There are some “left-wing rabbis who basically don’t think that anyone can use the word ‘Holocaust’ on the air.”
November 16, 2010

“[NPR] are, of course, Nazis. They have a kind of Nazi attitude. They are the left-wing of Nazism.”
November 17, 2010

Rabbis to Rupert Murdoch: ‘Sanction Glenn Beck’
An open letter on the occasion of UN Holocaust Remembrance Day

January 27, 2011 – Dear Mr. Murdoch, We are rabbis of diverse political views. As part of our work, we are devoted to preserving the memory of the Shoah, and to passing its lessons on to our future generations and to all humankind. All of us have vigorously defended the Holocaust’s legacy. We have worked to encourage the responsible invocation of its symbols as a powerful lesson for the future.

We were therefore deeply offended by Roger Ailes’ recent statement attributing the outrage over Glenn Beck’s use of Holocaust and Nazi images to “left-wing rabbis who basically don’t think that anybody can ever use the word ‘Holocaust’ on the air.”

In the charged political climate in the current civic debate, much is tolerated, and much is ignored or dismissed. But you diminish the memory and meaning of the Holocaust when you use it to discredit any individual or organization you disagree with. That is what Fox News has done in recent weeks, and it is not only “left-wing rabbis” who think so.

Abe Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, a child survivor of the Holocaust, described Beck’s attack on George Soros as “not only offensive, but horrific, over-the-top, and out-of-line.” Commentary Magazine said that “Beck’s denunciation of him [Soros] is marred by ignorance and offensive innuendo.” Elan Steinberg, vice president of The American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, called Mr. Beck’s accusations “monstrous.” Rev. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, called them “beyond repugnant.” And Deborah Lipstadt, professor of Holocaust Studies at Emory University, says Beck is using traditional anti-Semitic imagery.

“I haven’t heard anything like this on television or radio — and I’ve been following this kind of stuff,” Lipstadt said. “I’ve been in the sewers of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial more often than I’ve wanted.”

We share a belief that the Holocaust, of course, can and should be discussed appropriately in the media. But that is not what we have seen at Fox News. It is not appropriate to accuse a 14-year-old Jew hiding with a Christian family in Nazi-occupied Hungary of sending his people to death camps. It is not appropriate to call executives of another news agency “Nazis.” And it is not appropriate to make literally hundreds of on-air references to the Holocaust and Nazis when characterizing people with whom you disagree.

It is because this issue has a profound impact on each of us, our families and our communities that we are calling on Fox News to meet the standard it has set for itself: “to exercise the ultimate sensitivity when referencing the Holocaust.” We respectfully request that Glenn Beck be sanctioned by Fox News for his completely unacceptable attacks on a survivor of the Holocaust and that Roger Ailes apologize for his dismissive remarks about rabbis’ sensitivity to how the Holocaust is used on the air.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson
Vice President, American Jewish University, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus
President, Central Conference of American Rabbis
Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz
President, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College
Rabbi Daniel Nevins
Dean, Jewish Theological Seminary Rabbinical School
Rabbi Yael Ridberg
President, Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association
Rabbi Steven Wernick
Executive Vice President, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
President, Union for Reform Judaism
All organizations are listed for informational purposes only.
Rabbi David Adelson | Rabbi Charles Arian | Rabbi Benjamin Arnold | Rabbi Melanie W. Aron | Rabbi Erica Asch | Rabbi Larry Bach | Rabbi Justus Baird | Rabbi Lewis Barth | Rabbi Samuel Barth | Rabbi David Baum | Rabbi Shelley Kovar Becker | Rabbi Anne Belford | Rabbi Arnold Mark Belzer | Rabbi Joshua Ben-Gideon | Rabbi Alvin Berkun | Rabbi Jonathan Berkun | Rabbi Lauren Berkun | Rabbi Donald R. Berlin | Rabbi Phyllis Berman | Rabbi Joseph Berman | Rabbi Leila Gal Berner | Rabbi Edward Bernstein | Rabbi Kim Blumenthal | Rabbi Neil Blumofe | Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor | Rabbi Charles Briskin | Rabbi Deborah Bronstein | Rabbi Herbert Bronstein | Rabbi David Brusin | Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik | Rabbi Daniel Burg | Rabbi Joshua Caruso | Rabbi Aryeh Cohen | Rabbi Heidi Cohen | Rabbi Samuel Cohon | Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels | Rabbi David Cooper | Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove | Rabbi Rachel Cowan | Rabbi Jill Cozen-Harel | Rabbi Meryl Crean | Rabbi Robin Damsky | Rabbi Judith Edelstein | Rabbi Hector Epelbaum | Rabbi Jerome Epstein | Rabbi Noah Farkas | Rabbi Michael Feinberg | Rabbi Samuel Feinsmith | Rabbi Fern Feldman | Rabbi Brian Field | Rabbi Tirzah Firestone | Rabbi Joel Fleekop | Rabbi Steven Folberg | Rabbi Jeff Foust | Rabbi John Franken | Rabbi Anthony Fratello | Rabbi Alan Freedman | Rabbi Daniel Freelander | Rabbi Michael Friedman | Rabbi Dara Frimmer | Rabbi Gary Gerson | Rabbi Jordie Gerson | Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz | Rabbi Henry Glazer | Rabbi Gary Glickstein | Rabbi Andrew Gold | Rabbi Rachel Goldenberg | Rabbi Josh Goldstein | Rabbi Leonard Gordon | Rabbi Andrew Gordon | Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb | Rabbi Roberto Graetz | Rabbi Laurie Green | Rabbi David Greenberg | Rabbi Fred Greene | Rabbi Steven M. Gross | Rabbi Victor Gross | Rabbi Eric Gurvis | Rabbi Fred Guttman | Rabbi Andrew Hahn | Rabbi Laurie Hahn Tapper | Rabbi Joshua Hammerman | Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann | Rabbi Joshua Hoffman | Rabbi Michael Holzman | Rabbi Daniel Horwitz | Rabbi David Ingber | Rabbi Sheldon Isenberg | Rabbi Brett Isserow | Rabbi Steven Jacobs | Rabbi Daria Jacobs-Velde | Rabbi David Jaffe | Rabbi Howard Jaffe | Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster | Rabbi David Kalb | Rabbi Raphael Kanter | Rabbi Aaron Katz | Rabbi Elie Kaunfer | Rabbi Allan Kensky | Rabbi Stanley Kessler | Rabbi Jason Kimelman-Block | Rabbi Ralph Kingsley | Rabbi Daniel Klein | Rabbi Zoe Klein | Rabbi Jonathan Kligler | Rabbi David Kline | Rabbi Marc Kline | Rabbi Asher Knight | Rabbi Peter Knobel | Rabbi Douglas Kohn | Rabbi Stephanie Kolin | Rabbi Debra Kolodny | Rabbi Chaim Koritzinsky | Rabbi Jamie Korngold | Rabbi David Kosak | Rabbi Chava Koster | Rabbi Mark Kram | Rabbi Jonathan Kupetz | Rabbi Stephen Landau | Rabbi Ben-Zion Lanxner | Rabbi Michael Adam Latz | Rabbi Esther Lederman | Rabbi William Leffler | Rabbi Mordechai Leibling | Rabbi Susan Leider | Rabbi David Lerner | Rabbi Michael Lerner | Rabbi Alan Lettofsky | Rabbi Joel Levenson | Rabbi Daniel Levin | Rabbi Hillel Levine | Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater | Rabbi Richard Levy | Rabbi Sheldon Lewis | Rabbi Mordechai Liebling | Rabbi John Linder | Rabbi Ellen Lippmann | Rabbi Alan Litwak | Rabbi Barry Lutz | Rabbi David Lyon | Rabbi Craig Marantz | Rabbi Janet Marder | Rabbi Marc Margolius | Rabbi Rolando Matalon | Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin | Rabbi Sarah Meytin | Rabbi Brian Michelson | Rabbi Shira Milgrom | Rabbi Jason Miller | Rabbi Jonathan Miller | Rabbi Mark Miller | Rabbi Joshua Minkin | Rabbi Yocheved Mintz | Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh | Rabbi Ben Morrow | Rabbi Janet Offel | Rabbi Jack Paskoff | Rabbi Jay Perlman | Rabbi Rex Perlmeter | Rabbi Jonah Pesner | Rabbi Stephen Pinsky | Rabbi Richard Plavin | Rabbi William Plevan | Rabbi Rayzel Raphael | Rabbi Matthew Reimer | Rabbi Paula Reimers | Rabbi Victor Reinstein | Rabbi Steven Reuben | Rabbi Elizabeth Richman | Rabbi Ben Romer | Rabbi Joshua Rose | Rabbi Aaron Rosenberg | Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld | Rabbi David Rosenn | Rabbi Jennie Rosenn | Rabbi Adam Rosenwasser | Rabbi John Rosove | Rabbi Robert Rubin | Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay | Rabbi Arthur Rutberg | Rabbi Jan Salzman | Rabbi Daniel Satlow | Rabbi Scott Saulson | Rabbi Jeffrey Saxe | Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb | Rabbi Deborah Schloss | Rabbi Sid Schwarz | Rabbi Arthur Segal | Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller | Rabbi Benjamin Shalva | Rabbi Ari Shapiro | Rabbi Howard Shapiro | Rabbi David Shneyer | Rabbi Andy Shugerman | Rabbi Daniel Sikowitz | Rabbi David Small | Rabbi Myra Soifer | Rabbi Felicia L. Sol | Rabbi Marc Soloway | Rabbi Ned Soltz | Rabbi Abby Sosland | Rabbi Adam Spilker | Rabbi Brent Spodek | Rabbi Mychal Springer | Rabbi Israel Stein | Rabbi Stephen Julius Stein | Rabbi Frank Stern | Rabbi Keith Stern | Rabbi Yvonne Strassmann | Rabbi Mark Strauss-Cohn | Rabbi Ron Symons | Rabbi Elliott Tepperman | Rabbi David Teutsch | Rabbi Mervin Tomsky | Rabbi Daniel Treiser | Rabbi Lawrence Troster | Rabbi Jan Uhrbach | Rabbi Jason van Leeuwen | Rabbi Arthur Waskow | Rabbi Donald Weber | Rabbi Ezra Weinberg | Rabbi Michael Weinberg | Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt | Rabbi Jay Weinstein | Rabbi David Widzer | Rabbi Avi Winokur | Rabbi Amiel Wohl | Rabbi Sarah Wolf | Rabbi Bridget Wynne | Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz | Rabbi David Young | Rabbi Michael Zedek | Rabbi Daniel Zemel | Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman | Rabbi Misha Zinkow | Rabbi Leonard Zukrow
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
American Jews Antisemitism Hockey Sports

Jewish Hockey Player Claims Anti-Semitism, Now a Senator

There would probably be more anti-Semitism in the National Hockey League if there were only more Jewish players. TMZ reports that the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks are being accused of abusing Jewish Player Jason Bailey. The 23-year-old was a 3rd round draft pick in 2005 and he “claims from the moment the Ducks assigned him to play for an affiliate team called the Bakersfield Condors … his coaches unleashed a ‘barrage of anti-Semitic, offensive and degrading verbal attacks.'”

Bailey says the coaches also forced him to travel apart from the team and he was “rarely given any ice time” in games because he’s Jewish.

According to the documents, filed by Bailey’s powerhouse lawyer Keith Fink, Bailey complained to the Ducks about the hostile work environment — and the team reacted by instructing the coaches to pen apology letters to Bailey in which they both admitted to using hurtful language.

Bailey was eventually traded to the Ottawa Senators in 2009 — and insists the Ducks were “happy to be rid of him.”

I’m curious to hear how NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who is Jewish and an Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity brother, will deal with these allegations against the Anaheim Ducks. Hopefully, Jason Bailey will be treated better in Ottawa.

(Hat tip to Mark Eaton)

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Celebrities Hollywood Humor Jewish Jon Stewart Movies Ritual Television

Jon Stewart Can Only Go Shofar

Last night, Jon Stewart decided to blow a shofar on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” to alert his viewers to some breaking news (Keith Olbermann leaving MSNBC). He called it a News Shofar and announced “Something happened!” but never actually blew the shofar.  Instead he just put the shofar to his mouth and kept repeating the words “Hey Look” in a staccato fashion. It sort of sounded like a Tekiah blast followed by Teruah.

Technically, it didn’t look like a ram’s horn, but rather a gazelle’s horn. (Either one is sufficient to use on Rosh Hashanah.) Since Jon Stewart is a producer for The Colbert Report, I think he just borrowed the shofar that Stephen Colbert used to sign off at the end of his show back in 2009.

I wonder what it would take for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to come to my synagogue on Rosh Hashanah for a shofar duet?

Seeing Jon Stewart (Jewish) and Stephen Colbert (not-so-much) blowing the shofar got me thinking about Jewish rituals in which other celebrities have engaged. Here are a few that I was able to dig up:

Howie Mandell putting on tefillin

The Bob Dylan Tefillin

The Beastie Boys Playing Dreidel on Hanukkah

George Costanza, I mean Jason Alexander, Giving a Sermon in Synagogue

Ryan Gosling Leading Prayers (He looks like Eminem here!)

 Leonard Nimoy Duchenen (Blessing the Congregation)

Krusty the Klown Reading Torah

Rabbi Ben Stiller Teaching Torah

Darth Vader Waving the Lulav 
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
American Jews Basketball Jewish Law Rabbi Reform Judaism Sports

ESPN Joins the Who Is a Jew Debate

Since commenting here about how the assassination attempt of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords has brought the “Who Is a Jew” debate back into the spotlight, I have had some really intriguing conversations with colleagues about how we define Jewish status. A number of colleagues, including Rabbi Irwin Kula, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, Rabbi Alana Suskin, and Rabbi Sue Fendrick, posted comments and contributed to the discussion on this blog. A Reform colleague and I have had an ongoing private discussion about patrilineal descent. She told me that some Reform rabbis are questioning whether Gabby Giffords would even be considered Jewish according to the Reform movement’s definition (there’s been no mention of her Jewish education or upbringing which would be required by the Reform movement’s policy on Patrilineal Descent).

My rabbinical school classmate, Rabbi Micah Kelber, noticed that the “Who Is a Jew” debate has even made its way into the sports world. Watching ESPN’s “First Take,” Kelber caught commentator Skip Bayless putting his foot in his mouth while referencing how Judaism defines Jewish status through lineage. He blogged about at

Today Skip Bayless of ESPN’s First Take made a tiny, but amusing mistake while debating whether it is appropriate to call Blake Griffin of the Los Angeles Clippers the first great white star because while his father is black, his mother is white. To support his argument, he appealed to the Jews for help in determining someone’s identity.

His slip of the tongue: “I would just like to point out that in some cultures, like in the Jewish culture, if the mom is white, you’re Jewish.”

I don’t think that’s what he meant or else there’d be a whole lot more Jewish people in the world. I never thought the question of Jewish status would be taken up on ESPN. Maybe it’s better if it didn’t. In fact, maybe it’s better if we all moved on to other subjects now.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Education Environmentalism Holidays Jewish Literature Tu Bishvat

The Giving Tree for Tu Bishvat

Ten years ago I was asked by the editor of the journal Conservative Judaism to write about my favorite book from my childhood. There was no question I would write about Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. In honor of the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat — the birthday of the trees — I republish those words on this blog.

The Giving Tree

“And then the tree was happy… But not really.” Ever since I made the decision to become a rabbi several years ago, I have had a recurring vision of my future rabbinate. In this vision, I am sitting in a nursery school classroom at the synagogue reading The Giving Tree, my favorite children’s book, to the class. It is a tender story with many lessons to give about a young boy’s relationship with a tree. Through the years I have discovered many of the metaphors that abound throughout this parable – metaphors about nature, parents, and God.

The tree has a simple goal, and that is to make the little boy happy. When he asks the tree for money, she suggests that he sell her apples. When he asks for a house, she offers her branches as lumber. He keeps asking and she keeps giving, until all that is left of the tree is a stump when the young boy returns as an old man. And he sits on it.

This is a wonderful story for teachers to use when discussing the law of bal tash’chit – the Torah’s ban on wanton destruction of nature. Our role as God’s children is to repair the world (l’taken olam b’malkhut shaddai) and we must be careful not to exploit such precious gifts as trees, and nature’s other resources.

It is telling that as the boy matures into an old man, Silverstein continues to refer to him as the “boy.” This shows that the tree continued to give even as the boy grew, just as this wonderful book continues to give even as the audience of young boys and young girls gets older. People of all ages will appreciate the feelings of both joy and tears that this book elicits. This is why I no longer only envision myself as a rabbi sharing The Giving Tree with nursery school children, but with “children” of all ages as well. Each time I read this story, I am taken away and then I am happy… But not really.

(Originally published in Conservative Judaism, Vol. 53, No. 4, Summer 2001)

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Basketball Celebrities Ethics God Jewish Rabbis Theology

The Theology of LeBron James

Just because LeBron James started meeting with a rabbi this summer doesn’t mean he’s ready to be dispensing theological statements.

I’ve been thinking a lot about LeBron’s statement via his Twitter feed last week about the Cleveland Cavaliers’ huge upset to the Lakers. In what has become known as the “Karma Tweet,” LeBron tweeted the following during the final minutes of his former team’s 55-point loss to the Los Angeles Lakers: “Crazy. Karma is a b****.. Gets you every time. Its not good to wish bad on anybody. God sees everything.”

There are many unknowns when it comes to theology. Aside from dealing with the conundrums of evil and suffering in the world, we really don’t know whether God is omniscient. Apparently, LeBron James is certain of God’s omniscience (“God sees everything”). Not only that, but it seems that LeBron’s God metes out justice on those who “wish bad on anybody.” Now, I’m not going to judge LeBron for his theological certainty or even for his brashness in tweeting these words. I am, however, going to call him out for the senselessness of tweeting about divine karma this way.

That tweet couldn’t possibly have been received well no matter what happened. LeBron handled his separation from the Cavaliers in the worst way imaginable, so criticizing owner Dan Gilbert or the Cavaliers for wishing ill on him is ridiculous at best. Second, LeBron’s “Karma Tweet” sets him up for ridicule should the karma now fly the other way, which is exactly what has happened. Since LeBron decided to wax theological on Twitter, his team — the Miami Heat — has lost three consecutive games on the road and has seen the three superstars all get injured (twisted ankles for LeBron and Chris Bosh, and a hurt knee for Dwayne Wade).

This only proves that if you believe in the divine karma LeBron believes in, well, it can cut both ways. And if you ever sense that, thanks to karma, bad things are being levied on those who wished ill on you, be smart about it and keep your mouth shut. And in this day and age, that means stay away from Twitter!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
American Jews Celebrities Hollywood Humor Jewish Jon Stewart Music

A Saturday Night Live Bar Mitzvah with Cee Lo Green

Jewish humor has always been one of my favorite topics to teach. I’ve taught classes about Jewish humor and Jewish comedians to teens and adults at many different settings including synagogues, Jewish camps, and on college campuses. As an aspiring stand-up comic, I have always been interested in the history of Jewish humor, what makes a Jewish joke funny, and why there have been so many successful Jewish comedians throughout the generations.

A sketch on last night’s episode of Saturday Night Live (SNL) provides much food for thought about Jewish humor. The SNL sketch parodies a lavish bar mitzvah for the nephew of a Hollywood exec that has performances by Taylor Swift (played by Gwyneth Paltrow), Jay-Z and Alicia Keys, Katy Perry, and Cee Lo Green. Jacob, the uncomfortable bar mitzvah boy, repeatedly claims that he told his father that he would have been content with just a “modest luncheon.”

The sketch is funny, but it also relies on some age old Jewish stereotypes that many will claim have run their course and aren’t funny anymore. When it comes to comedy, is everything fair game? I’ve always taught that ethnic humor has to have at least a hint of accuracy for it to be funny. There will surely be those who are offended by the many JAP (Jewish American Princess) references in Gwyneth Paltrow’s Taylor Swift impersonation in the bar mitzvah sketch. Parodying Taylor Swift’s song “You Belong With Me,” Paltrow sang: “She’s in synagogue with her new clear braces on / I’m sittin’ shiva with no mirrors to put makeup on / She doesn’t get your Mel Brooks humor like I do / She wears Macy’s, I wear Loehmann’s. She wears Filene’s and I wear Filene’s Basement / Can’t you see? She’s just a JAP. Not like Japanese.”

Up next performing at Jacob’s bar mitzvah was SNL comic Jay Pharoah (a last name that could be offensive to Jews, but isn’t) appearing as Jay-Z and singing his bar mitzvah version of “New York State of Mind” with Alicia Keys (Nasim Pedrad). He opens with the words, “While we read the Torah / Just to learn the word of God / Straight from Deuteronomy… Rabbi Josh Levi / I’m straight up withcha.” He then utters what I would imagine is the first reference to the Mishnah on late night network TV. Pharaoh (as Jay-Z) then gives a deep reference to both biblical kosher law and the theological perplexity of God’s ego: “Everything ain’t right cuz it’s dirty as shellfish / Don’t defy Yahweh cuz he’s mad selfish.”

As if this SNL sketch couldn’t get any more Jewish (or as Jon Stewart often says: “Jewy”), Jewish SNL cast member Abby Elliott sends up Katy Perry doing her Jewish version of “California Girls.” She enters with “Hi everybody, happy Jewish!” and then busts into the lyrics “Jacob just read from the Haftorah / Let’s all dance the Hora… Ashkenazi Jews they’re so incredible / And Sefardic Jews are cool too / West Bank represent despite your violence… Shalom you guys.”

Next, Cee Lo Green enters the bar mitzvah party in a giant fur coat singing his “F.U.” song, but with lyrics about the Hebrew language and how it sounds like gargling. He’s introduced by Jacob’s father who believes Cee Lo Green’s a “member of the tribe” based on his last name, but then says, “Or maybe not.” Referencing the ongoing joke about the older kids at the bar mitzvah party bending the metal forks, Cee Lo Green says, “What’s with this bending forks thing? I mean, that’s straight up meshuganeh man!” Something tells me that Lorne Michaels and Andy Sandberg had a bet to see if they could get Cee Lo Green to say something Yiddish.

The full video of the SNL bar mitzvah sketch is below. I will use it next Monday afternoon when I present a lunchtime discussion about Jewish humor at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, Michigan. Aside from the question of appropriateness of some of the JAP jokes at the beginning of this SNL sketch, what is so interesting is that Jews only account for about 2% of the U.S. population and yet SNL devotes so much of its show to esoteric Jewish references. And this isn’t an isolated example either. On Thursday night, Conan O’Brien joked that the new Disney theme park in Israel wouldn’t use the nickname “The Happiest Place on Earth,” but rather “It Could Be Worse.” Conan then spent a couple minutes showing off his impression of a Jewish person. On Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart also makes not-so-subtle references to Jewish themes on his show. Last week on one of his shows, he compared the members of Congress coming up to the microphone on the first day of the congressional session to read a line from the Constitution with “the dramatic chops of family members who demand to be called to the bimah for your bar mitzvah.”

I’m not sure if the Jewish writers on SNL thought Purim was much closer than it actually is, but I will say that they did a great Purim shpiel last night.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |

Beshalach: Remembering Katrina and Honoring NOLA

It’s hard to believe that Hurricane Katrina occurred five-and-a-half years ago. I traveled to New Orleans in 2007 with other rabbis to help in the cleanup effort and spent two quick days there this past August when I was the keynote speaker at the Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi) Fraternity Convention. It was impressive to see how New Orleans has returned to a great city thanks to the hard work of its people.

This Shabbat, the Jewish people all over the world will read Parashat Beshalach, the section of the Torah narrative in which the Israelites walk through the water of the Reed Sea. When I returned from New Orleans in 2007, I spoke about the experience on Shabbat Beshalach. I am reposting those words below and congratulate the great people of NOLA for navigating their way through the disastrous waters of Katrina.

NOLA: A Story of Hope and Rebirth

There was a part of me that was curious. Perhaps curious in a similar way as I was in 2001 following September 11th when I wanted to see the aftermath of the disaster. There was a natural desire – a sense of inquisitiveness – in wanting to see Ground Zero. I had seen the news footage of New Orleans after Katrina hit in August 2005. I watched Spike Lee’s documentary, “When the Levees Broke” about the Lower 9th Ward’s ravishing after the flood. I wanted to see it for myself.

Unlike 9/11 when I was, as we say in Hebrew nogeah badavar, very much connected to the tragedy, since I was living in New York City, about to leave for a year of study in Israel, and found myself stuck in Chicago where I was visiting friends and unable to return to Detroit where my wife was at the time. When Katrina hit I was thousands of miles away from the U.S. I learned about the storm a couple of days after it hit when I turned on the T.V. in my hotel room in Kiev. I had been traveling throughout Ukraine with some of my university students and no one seemed to know anything about Katrina yet. I felt removed from the situation because I was.

So, for the past year-and-a-half I had a strong desire to become more connected to the situation. Further, I felt that it was a travesty that Katrina was so far from our minds this many months after the fact since it wasn’t a hot enough story anymore for the evening news or the 24/7 cable networks. There was a feeling deep inside of me that I had to find out what I could do to help. And to see it with my own eyes.

Touring the worst hit areas this past week, as part of a Rabbinical Assembly Mission to New Orleans with thirty-five other Conservative rabbis, there were many thoughts running through my head.
Miracles. I thought of the difference between keriat yam suf and bekiat yam suf. Keriat yam suf is the miraculous feat of God to separate the waters of the Sea of Reeds. When Moses held his staff high in the sky, there was a strong wind that forced the waters to recede so the Israelites could cross the sea escaping from the pursuing Egyptian army. But there was also bekiat yam suf – the water crashing back down on the Egyptians who like the Israelites were children of God, part of God’s creation.

I thought of the many theological conundrums presented by Katrina. Returning to my own conception of God and God’s role in the world, I considered the hurricane from God’s point of view. Did God feel powerless watching His children perish in the flood? Did God resent those who didn’t flee for higher ground? Was God frustrated by those who believe Him to be omnipotent and questioned why the All Powerful was not taking advantage of that power? Was God disappointed by those who erred in catastrophic ways by not repairing the levee walls years ago when it was determined they would not withstand a storm of this magnitude? Was God distraught by the horrific criminal acts of many in the days and weeks following Katrina?

I thought about divine justice. How could a student of the Bible not consider the narratives of Noah, of Sodom and Gomorrah, of the generation who constructed the Golden Calf. No human beings seem deserving of the devastation that was wrought on the victims of Katrina. No doubt there were those arguing that New Orleans was a city of strife, of sin, and of moral debasement.

But I also thought about faith. Who were the victims of Katrina? Who were the ones working toward revitalization and a potential renaissance? What gave them the courage and the conviction to rebuild? I thought about Hugo Kahn, the leader of our incredibly powerful tour of New Orleans. Hugo is a past president of the New Orleans Federation and very active in the Conservative shul, Shir Chadash, where his wife is the president.

Everyone in the shul sang Mr. Kahn’s praises and told us that were it not for the Kahn’s, the day school in New Orleans would not exist. A refugee from Kristallnacht, he was raised in Omaha and became an accountant. He ran a major department store in New Orleans for many years and he told us how the store supported many projects in the community. He is currently on the Finance Committee of the Federation helping to figure out how to cover the $4 million deficit of the Jewish institutions in the community due to Katrina. He was “resurrected” into service because so many in the Jewish community have left New Orleans.

What gives people like Hugo Kahn the faith to persevere? He survived Kristallnacht as a child and could have relocated last year with his wife to many Jewish communities around the country. But his faith drove him to return to New Orleans and to lead the rebuilding effort.

As I toured the area, I also thought about water. How could I not think about water? It was all around us. From the Mississippi River to one side and from Lake Pontchartrain on the other. I learned about canals, levees, and deltas. I learned that New Orleans is basically a bowl that filled with water. I thought about how the Torah is compared to water. Moses proclaims: “May my teaching drop like the rain.” Both rain and Torah descend from the heavens and provide relief to the thirst. Water is the source of life – deprived of water; a person will become dehydrated and ultimately disoriented. But here, I realized, it was water that was the source of death and destruction.

I also spent some time thinking about responsibility. There’s a part of me that wants New Orleanians to move on and not focus on whose fault Katrina was. Was it the responsibility of the Federal Government tasked with the building and maintenance of the levees? Was it the responsibility of the local government to have better prepared for the storm? Should the evacuation efforts have run more smoothly? Should there have been better civil order maintained by local law enforcement? Should the local residents have been more responsible with their own safety and survival?

There were many, unfortunately, who didn’t recognize they were being saved and brought to safety. They made their own mistakes by not taking responsibility for their own best interests. I was reminded of the old joke about the guy standing on his roof while the flood waters swirl around his house? He turns down a rescue helicopter, a Coast Guard boat, and a raft, insisting God is going to save him. He dies and goes to heaven, and asks God why He didn’t save him. God says, “I tried. I sent a helicopter, a boat, and a raft…” “The Lord helps those who help themselves.”

* * *

Our scholar-in-residence for the mission, my colleague and teacher Rabbi Gordon Tucker, opened the mission with a text study session about the mysterious manna that our ancestors ate in the desert. Through several midrashim found in the Talmud, we learned that the Israelites didn’t have to work very hard for this food that rained down from heaven each day. There are many stories told about this manna including the fact that there was actually home delivery. The manna would essentially be delivered right to your door – the same helping each day. In fact, Rabbi Tucker taught us that upon eating the manna, which would taste like anything you wanted, there was no excretion. He compared this to infants who are also not concerned about excretion because they don’t have to be. The Israelites were babied. They were given what they needed and didn’t have to work for it.

This all changed, of course, in the time of Joshua when our ancestors had to sweat and toil to create a land and a community. They had to fight and they had to be more responsible. The people of New Orleans will now have to sweat and toil to rebuild the city. I can tell you that from what I witnessed, there is a lot of work to be done. They cannot, and should not, have to do it alone.

Shutafo. We were partners with the Holy One Blessed Be God in seder beriat ha’olam – the creation of world. We are now shutafo, partners with God in Tikkun Olam – trying to repair our severely damaged and fragile world. We need to be shutafim with the people of New Orleans. We have to remember that there are many down South willing and able to hammer their homes back together. They might just need us to give them the hammer. There are many who are dedicated to starting new schools, they might just need us to show them how to teach. There are many who desperately want to get back on their feet and start new jobs. They just might need the financial assistance to take the first step.

We will benefit because the people of New Orleans are a people with soul. New Orleans is a city with soul. Tuesday night following a lecture, we headed to the Maple Leaf Bar in the Carrollton neighborhood of Uptown New Orleans. The Maple Leaf is one of oldest and most beloved music clubs in New Orleans. We were blessed with the opportunity to hear the true New Orleans sound of the Rebirth Brass Band. The 10:00 pm show finally began at 11:30 pm, but it was well worth the wait. It was loud and it was soulful!

After the concert, my colleague and friend, Rabbi Daniel Schweber wrote in his journal that “the music experience demonstrated to me first hand that New Orleans’ soul is worth preserving. In Judaism we do not make a big distinction between the body and the soul. It is the body and soul in tandem that make the person who they are. The same is true with New Orleans. New Orleans is made up of its soul dwelling in the body of the Mississippi Delta. I came to the realization that if we are going to preserve New Orleans’ rich culture then we have to preserve and rebuild the body, the physical city itself.”

May we all come to see what I saw this past week. In New Orleans, there is much hope amid the suffering. There is faith amid fear. We, as American citizens and men and women striving for justice in the world need to help New Orleanians see the possibilities amid pessimism.

It’s been a year-and-a-half since Katrina struck. Let us end the blame game. Let us end the questioning. Let us strive to rebuild. We all have to help. For the sake of a people with deep faith and abounding soul. For the sake of the future. For the sake of justice. For the sake of godliness.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
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Gabby Giffords and Patrilineal Descent When It’s Desirable

As a Conservative rabbi and a member of the Rabbinical Assembly, I cannot officially consider Jewish descent to be determined patrilineally (from the father). In fact, in its “Code of Professional Conduct,” the section detailing the responsibilities for membership in the Rabbinical Assembly lists four current standards of religious practice. The first is: “Matrilineality determines Jewish status.”

And yet, like many Jews who regard Jewish status to require a Jewish mother or proper conversion, I admit to feeling pride when a Jewish athlete or celebrity is successful, even if their “Jewishness” isn’t technically defined by halachic standards. After all, when major league baseball player Ryan Braun won the National League Rookie of the Year award in 2007, should the Jewish community have refused to claim the “Hebrew Hammer” as one of our own since only his father is a “Member of the Tribe?” Braun considers himself to be Jewish and his Israeli-born father lost most of his family in the Holocaust.

The 1983 decision by the Reform Movement to recognize Jewish status by either the mother or the father continues to raise questions for the other streams of Judaism. The debate over “Who is a Jew” is back in the headlines following the shooting in Tucson, Arizona that critically injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. For Giffords, the daughter of a mother who is a Christian Scientist and a father who is Jewish and the grandson of a rabbi, there is no question of her Jewishness. She is a proud Jew who is an active member of her Reform congregation. She was married under a chuppah (wedding canopy) by a rabbi, albeit to a non-Jewish man.

This week, as Giffords lay in a hospital recovering from being shot in an assassination attempt by a domestic terrorist, her Hebrew name has circulated the world to be used in the traditional Mi Sheberach prayer for healing. Some rabbis have even questioned whether her non-Jewish mother’s name should be part of her Hebrew nomenclature for the prayer, while others have referred to her as Jewish but added the caveat “not halachically speaking.” Giffords co-chaired the Jewish Outreach Institute’s 2007 conference and is active in her congregation. Yesterday, President Barack Obama called Rabbi Stephanie Aaron, Giffords’ rabbi at Congregation Chaverim, to offer his prayers for a speedy recovery for the congresswoman.

Since Saturday’s shooting, we’ve learned quite a bit about Gabrielle Giffords and her Jewish pride. Her paternal grandfather, the son of a Lithuanian rabbi, changed his name to Giff Giffords for anti-Semitic reasons. On her campaign website, Giffords wrote, “Growing up, my family’s Jewish roots and tradition played an important role in shaping my values. The women in my family served as strong role models for me as a girl. In my family, if you want to get something done, you take it to the women relatives! Like my grandmother, I am a lifetime member of Hadassah and now a member of Congregation Chaverim. When I served in the State Senate in Arizona, I had the opportunity to visit Jerusalem. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. I will always be a strong supporter of Israel. As the only functioning democracy in the Middle East, Israel is a vital strategic ally of the United States. As a woman and as a Jew, I will always work to insure that the United States stands with Israel to jointly ensure our mutual safety, security, and prosperity.”

The Jerusalem Post was the first publication to state emphatically that Giffords’ Jewishness shouldn’t be questioned. In fact, in their editorial “Learning Judaism From Giffords,” they wrote, “With all our desire for a universally accepted definition of ‘Who is a Jew?’ that would unify the Jewish people, we cannot ignore the complicated reality that many ‘non-Jews’ are much more Jewish than their ‘Jewish’ fellows. Congresswoman Giffords is one of them.”

In her “In the Mix” blog at The Jewish Week, Julie Wiener wrote of how Giffords’ Jewishness is shining a spotlight on the “who is a Jew” debate. In her article, “Plight of the Patrilineals,” Weiner cited blogger “Kung Fu Jew,” who posted his angry rant on the JewSchool blog about how Giffords is “Jewish enough for the Jewish community to own a side-show of the media circus. Jewish enough to be our martyr, it seems, but not Jewish enough to be treated equally in life.” He has a point here. I’m sure many synagogues will offer prayers of healing for Rep. Giffords this Shabbat and recognize her as a Jewish member of Congress, yet they would be violating their own religious policy if they ever called her to the Torah for an aliyah honor.

I really wish we had a consensus on what determines Jewish status through lineage, even if only in the non-Orthodox Jewish community. Certainly, we cannot continue to make an exception for athletes, celebrities, and politicians of Jewish patrilineal descent. I’m in agreement with the Jerusalem Post on this matter. If Rep. Gabrielle Giffords considers herself Jewish because her father is Jewish and she lives a Jewish life, then she’s Jewish.

May Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (Gavriela bat Gloria v’Spencer) be granted a speedy and complete recovery.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
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Razoo Corrects Its Israel Problem

Here’s my recent post on the Jewish Techs blog for The Jewish Week

If you didn’t receive numerous email solicitations from non-profit organizations during the final week of 2010, then your email server was likely down.

Many of these charitable organizations that sent year end pleas for your contributions have begun using, which claims to have raised more than $42 million for thousands of worthy causes. Razoo’s LinkedIn profile describes the company as “a new way to give and raise money online. We offer visually engaging and inspiring content along with easy-to-use, free tools for individuals and nonprofit organizations to raise awareness, raise funds, connect, and share.” The company is led by CEO Sebastian Traeger, based in Washington D.C.

When I received an email solicitation from eJewishPhilanthropy, I clicked the link and was introduced to the Razoo website. Within minutes, I set up a fundraising account for my congregation. I’ve since noticed that many Jewish non-profits are using Razoo for online donations. I’ve been very pleased with the website thus far.

Yesterday, eJewishPhilanthropy’s founder Dan Brown wrote an op-ed on the eJP website asking “Does Razoo Have an Israel Problem?” He wrote:

Two weeks ago, during the peak week for online donations, we had several people who live in Israel contact us to indicate they could not donate through Razoo’s platform as Israel was not an option listed on their country list (see above). We contacted Razoo, who responded:

“Due to high rates of fraud, we do not accept donations from cardholders in the following countries: Israel, Ukraine, Indonesia, Serbia, Lithuania, Egypt, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Russia, Pakistan, Malaysia, Nigeria and Ghana. We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience this causes for you and the work you are doing. Our chief goal is to protect the integrity of the giving process for all parties involved: non-profits, donors, fundraisers, and Razoo. At first glance, one would think, ok Israel is not being singled out; we’re one of several. But a little checking around told us that you could not only use a credit card with an Israel billing address on the likes of Amazon and eBay, but also on nonprofit giving platforms including Blackbaud, Convio and even Global Giving. In terms of online payments, these are pretty large global organizations so one expects they’re current on credit card fraud problems around the world.”

Today, Dan Brown sent out an update that alerted readers of eJewishPhilanthropy that Razoo was changing its policy on accepting Israeli credit cards. He sent a “shout-out to both the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and J-Town Productions who were also proactive in pushing this issue.” The company released the following statement:

Razoo respects its donors and nonprofits without discrimination, and aims to to provide a safe and trusted online environment for donors to contribute to the 501(c)(3)s they care about. Razoo’s intent was not in any way to make political statements towards any country’s legitimacy. After evaluating our fraud policies, we have taken steps to address the situation to allow donations from Israel and appreciate valuable feedback from organizations like yours. We are planning to launch the new functionality on Wednesday, January 12th or on Thursday, January 13th.

Kudos for Razoo and Sebastian Traeger for acting so quickly in correcting this oversight.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |