Masei – Jewish Summer Camp

This Shabbat, we read the final Torah portion from the book of Numbers, Parashat Masei. This section of the Torah begins with an extensive list of the places our ancestors traveled through on their way to the Promised Land. It details their stops and encampments as they walked through the desert wilderness eager to arrive in Canaan.

It’s appropriate that we read this section of the Torah during the summer as thousands of Jewish children and teens are experiencing their own journeys at summer camp. For so many Jewish youth, the summer camp they attend is their Promised Land. It is a place of refuge they look forward to each year.

In the Torah, there is precedent for Jewish camping. In Genesis, we learn that our patriarch Jacob must have attended sleep-away camp for it says: “Jacob slept at camp” (v’hu lan balilah hahu bamachaneh) (Gen. 32:22). And in Exodus, when the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, the Torah teaches that Moses returned to the camp (v’shav el hamachaneh) (Ex. 33:11). And then, in the book of Numbers, we are told that all of the Levites go to camp (v’halevi’im yachanu) (Num. 1:53). And finally, in Deuteronomy the Torah even tells us “the Lord your God walks in the midst of your camp” (ki Adonai Eloheicha mithalech b’kerev machaneicha) (Deut. 23:15). So there is clearly a long-standing tradition of Jews and summer camp.

Today, thousands of Jewish children attend summer camps like Camp Hiawatha, Camp Tomahawk, Camp Tamakwa, Camp Tamarack, Camp Al-Gon-Quin, and the like. A comedian once noted the humor of all these Jewish kids going to camps with Indian-sounding names. He surmised that somewhere there are American-Indian children spending their summers at Camp Oy-Vey-Ismier.

The statistics show that the Jewish summer camp experience has tremendous effect on children. A Moment Magazine study suggests “that children who go to Jewish camps come home with a much stronger sense of their Jewish selves. Community based studies across the United States show that Jewish campers consistently marry Jews more often and belong to shuls in greater numbers than non campers. Most Jewish professionals — whether at the pulpit, in the classroom, or in the community-at-large — say they discovered or consolidated their Jewish identity at summer camp.”

Today, our non-profit Jewish camps need our support more than ever. The majority of Jewish camps are non-profits and they simply cannot compete with the lavish facilities and stellar sports programs at the privately owned, profitable camps. We want our children to experience everything our Jewish camps provide, but we also want our children to be comfortable and to have an abundance of resources. It should be a top goal to get our Jewish summer camps up to the same physical quality as the best secular, for-profit camps, offering specialized activities in the arts, sports, and outdoor adventure; and, with a spectacular professional staff that is second-to-none. It should be a top goal for scholarships to be made available to any family who needs assistance in sending their children to camp.

To Jewish educators like me, Jewish camps are the canvas on which we can create future leaders in the Jewish world. Summer camp may only be two months out of the year, but the experience is for a lifetime. No longer can we keep our eyes closed to the importance of Jewish summer camps. For the sake of the future of our Jewish communities, let us strengthen our camps so we can strengthen the Jewish people.

Shabbat Shalom.

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

Do It For Detroit

I was born 35 years ago today in Sinai Hospital on West Outer Drive in Downtown Detroit.

Detroit was born 310 years ago today.

Detroit hasn’t aged well in my lifetime. Sinai Hospital, which opened in 1953 to give Jewish doctors a place to practice, was the the central medical institution for the Jewish community. Even as the Jewish community migrated northwest into the Metro Detroit suburbs, Sinai remained the hospital of choice for Detroit’s Jews. Gradually this changed as it became increasingly more dangerous to venture Downtown and a handful of outstanding hospitals sprouted up in the suburbs with the Jewish doctors who received their training at Sinai. In 1999, Sinai merged with Grace Hospital and ceased being the Jewish hospital.

Jewish Detroiters had one less reason to head Downtown. The Jewish Federation building moved to the suburbs in the early 1990s. The synagogues had long since been sold to Black churches. The fancy restaurants that the Jewish community still flocked to had shuttered. With the exception of a Tigers baseball game or a Red Wings hockey game or the occasional concert or theater performance, there were little reasons for Jewish Detroiters living in the suburbs to head Downtown.

But that has changed. Detroit is now seeing a renaissance. The first attempt at a renaissance in Detroit was in 1977 when the Renaissance Building was erected as the great hope for the Motor City to turn around following the race riots of the late 1960s. That plan never materialized. However, the time has finally come for Detroit’s revival.

Here are a few of the great things happening in Detroit that are contributing to its revitalization:

Moishe House – On June 1, Detroit opened its first Moishe House in Downtown. The mission of Moishe House is to provide meaningful Jewish experiences for young adults around the world by supporting leaders in their 20s as they create vibrant home-based Jewish communities. Detroit’s new home for a handful of entrepreneurial Jewish young adults was funded by local Jewish philanthropists including A. Alfred Taubman, Max Fisher’s daughter Jane Sherman, the Seligman family, Bill and Madge Berman, and the Norman and Esther Allan Foundation. The young people living in the house, including Community Next’s Jordan Wolfe and Come Play Detroit’s Justin Jacobs, are pioneers. Like the young, idealistic pioneers who immigrated to Israel to resettle the land, these visionaries are taking the lead in Detroit.

Come Play Detroit – Founded by Justin Jacobs, Come Play Detroit began as a way for Metro Detroiters to play sports together in leagues. What began as a basketball league in the suburbs has morphed into a way to help bring excitement to the Downtown area. Softball and kickball leagues in Detroit, parties, and an attempt at setting a Guinness Book World Record for the largest dodgeball game are just some of Justin’s ideas that have encouraged Metro Detroit’s young adult Jewish population to venture Downtown.

Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue – Detroit’s only surviving synagogue is a Conservative congregation on Griswold Street in the center of the city that until recently functioned as the only minyan where Jewish businessmen could go for afternoon services if they had to say Kaddish (the mourner’s prayer). Its story of rebirth is an interesting one. Young, passionate Jews have saved the building from falling into disrepair and becoming a slum building. Its new mission is to rediscover Jewish life in Detroit. The synagogue no longer functions as a traditional Conservative synagogue, but more of a Jewish center of social justice programming and cultural activities offering Shabbat services and luncheons, film nights, classes, and dance parties.

LiveWorkDetroit – Detroit’s business leaders are the city’s biggest cheerleaders for a renaissance. The Michigan Economic Development Corporation includes many Jewish businessmen who are at the forefront of creating new jobs for young people in an effort to get them to stay in Detroit. A Crain’s Detroit Business article included several Jewish leaders in its list of the most powerful people in Detroit: Dan Gilbert of Quicken Loans, Michigan Republican Party Chairman Bobby Schostak, and Jewish Federation President Michael Horowitz. Jewish businessmen like Gilbert, Schostak, Stanley Frankel and Gary Torgow are working behind-the-scenes to retain Jewish talent and help bring back the young Jews who fled Detroit. With the full support of Detroit’s Mayor Dave Bing, Dan Gilbert has teamed up with Josh Linkner, Magic Johnson and Brian Hermelin to invest in new companies that will help revitalize Detroit.

My birthday wish today is that the City of Detroit, which shares its birthday with me, will become the city that we dream it can be. I hope the Motor City returns to a vibrant urban center that we can be proud of. It is exciting that so many young Jewish Detroiters are finally saying “Do It For Detroit.”

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

Jewish Singer Amy Winehouse Found Dead

Was Amy Winehouse Jewish? Yes, she was. The singer, who was found dead today in her London home, was born in Southgate, London to Janis, a pharmacist, and Mitch, a cab driver.

A 2010 article in Moment Magazine titled “Surprise, They’re Jewish,” describes Winehouse as “The 27-year old British, bee-hived vocalist and tabloid headliner is equally known for her innovative songs and substance abuse problems; references to her ‘pipes’ could just as easily conjure her vocal chords or drug paraphernalia. Yet, the bad girl with the pin-up tattoos, soul style and Marilyn Monroe mole piercing was born to Mitchell and Janis, a Jewish couple in north London. Not everyone is surprised to hear that Winehouse is Jewish. Referencing her Semitic-looking visage, Sarah Silverman once quipped, ‘She is Jewish, right? If she isn’t, someone should tell her face.'”

Her obituary in the New York Times states that “Winehouse showed an early talent for performing, as well as an eclecticism that would characterize her later work. She loved her father’s Sinatra records, but she also liked hip-hop; at age 10 she and a friend formed a rap group called Sweet ‘n’ Sour that Ms. Winehouse later described as “the little white Jewish Salt-N-Pepa.”

So far, the cause of Amy Winehouse’s death is not known.

While going for drug abuse treatment seems to be a fad these days for celebrities, there are some celebs who really need it but don’t give it much attention.

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

The Magic Returns to Motown

Dan Gilbert, Brian Hermelin and Josh Linkner are three Jewish entrepreneurs in Metro Detroit who have teamed up to invest some venture capital into companies in an effort to rebuild the City of Detroit. Gilbert is the founder and chairman of Quicken Loans, which is now headquartered in Downtown Detroit where he has been buying up business real estate properties in the city lately.

Each of these three men has a great deal of experience in the business world. In addition to owning Quicken Loans, Gilbert (in photo) also is the majority owner of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers. Hermelin was CEO of Active Aero Group, an on-demand airplane charter company, and also founded Rockbridge Growth Equity with Gilbert. Hermelin’s late father David, an insurance tycoon, was one of the owners of the Palace of Auburn Hills where the Detroit Pistons play, and also the Ambassador to Norway before his death in 2000. Linkner considers himself a serial entrepreneur having started a couple of companies before launching ePrize in 1999. Gilbert and Hermelin, along with other Detroit businessmen, invested $32 million into ePrize through Rockbridge in 2006.

Now Gilbert, Hermelin and Linkner have created Detroit Venture Partners in an effort to infuse capital into businesses that are willing to help kickstart Gilbert’s dream of a renaissance in the City of Detroit.

What these three venture capitalists (who are all over 40, white and Jewish) seem to be missing is an African American businessman who is already beloved in Detroit and has a reputation for creating a financial renaissance in a predominantly African American neighborhood (think Harlem, NY).

Enter Earvin “Magic” Johnson. The former NBA great tweeted to his Twitter followers last night that he’ll be in Detroit to make a big announcement tomorrow. When I read Magic Johnson’s tweet I started thinking about what this announcement would be. The Detroit Pistons have already been acquired by Tom Gores so I didn’t think it was basketball related. And then this morning I awoke to an email from Josh Linkner (CEO of Detroit Venture Partners) announcing a “Magic” announcement. Linkner wrote, “Super exciting news for the City of Detroit, the tech community, and certainly myself personally. If you can, please watch it unfold live with streaming video at www.DetroitVenturePartners.com today, July 21, at 10:00am ET. It should be a powerful media conference announcing breaking news that I know you will enjoy.”

The AP seems to have picked up on the story too. An article published this morning says:

Quicken Loans founder and chairman Dan Gilbert has called a news conference to announce an addition to a venture capital company focused on rebuilding Detroit, and a tweet from ex-NBA star Magic Johnson suggests it’s him. Gilbert’s spokespeople say a sports legend and Hall-of-Famer will be introduced Thursday as the newest member of Detroit Venture Partners. They and Johnson’s staff wouldn’t confirm Wednesday that it’s the former basketball player.

But Johnson posted Twitter messages Wednesday night saying he’ll “be making a big announcement in Detroit” on Thursday and looks forward to helping put “people back to work” in his home state of Michigan.

The early-stage venture capital business focuses on entrepreneurship and technology to create jobs in Detroit.

This is great news for Detroit. I dream that my children will have a vibrant downtown area in Detroit like my parents had before the riots in the late 1960s. Hopefully Magic Johnson will bring his magic to Detroit — the same magic that won championships for the Los Angeles Lakers and helped turn Harlem around. Here’s hoping it works.

UPDATE: Josh Linkner introduced Magic Johnson at this morning’s press conference. Johnson said he is making good on a promise he made to Mayor Dave Bing during his campaign for mayor of the City of Detroit by investing some of his millions into economic growth in the city. johnson choked back tears as he introduced Mayor Bing, a fellow Hall of Fame point guard.

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

A Look at the Recent Jewish Headlines

This has been anything but a quiet summer for Jewish news. The summer is usually a time when the Jewish world slows down, but not this year. It’s only mid-July and already it seems like there have been a dozen big news stories this summer.

Here’s the list I compiled of news items either about the Jewish community or related to the Jewish community. Feel free to add to the list in the comments section.

Arson Fire at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem – A major forest fire in Jerusalem led to the evacuation of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum. After burning nearly 40 acres of the Jerusalem forest, firefighters and the Israeli military got the blaze under control. Arson is suspected.

Ban on Circumcision in San Francisco – A ballot measure to ban circumcision in San Francisco has given the Jewish ritual national attention. The measure would outlaw circumcisions on males younger than 18, except in cases of medical necessity, within San Francisco city limits. Anyone convicted of performing circumcisions could be sentenced to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. The shocking part is that no religious exemptions would be permitted according to this measure.

Ban on Kosher and Halal Slaughter – The Dutch initiative against shechitah (Jewish ritual slaughter) was conceived of by the Party for the Animals, which holds just two seats in the 150-seat Dutch House and one in the 75-seat Senate. The ultra-liberal party argues that stunning an animal is more humane than the razor-sharp knife used in kosher slaughter. If the ban passes, Dutch Jewish leaders will challenge it in court, using the guarantee of freedom of religion enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights as their defense.

Anthony Weiner – The summer began with the first sex scandal to be linked to Twitter. Rep. Anthony Weiner, a Jewish congressman from New York, had everything going for him. He was moving up the ranks and had become a media darling. His downfall was caused by hubris and his inability to refrain from sending nude photos of himself to women through his Twitter account. As JTA noted, there was a long list of Jewish congressmen who called for Weiner’s resignation: Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.), Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) and Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.). Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) was the only Jewish congressman to come to Weiner’s defense. The embarrassed and disgraced congressman lied to the public and then resigned amid pressure from his colleagues.

Liberal Rabbinical Students on Israel – Rabbi Danny Gordis has developed a reputation for saying what’s on his mind. Last summer, Peter Beinart accused the American Jewish community of forsaking its own liberal democratic values in blind support of Israel’s move to the political right, and in the process created a generation of young Jews who feel no attachment to the Jewish state. This summer, Gordis narrowed the focus to American rabbinical students in the Reform and Conservative movements who he claims have alienated Israel in order to maintain their liberal political views. The former dean of Conservative Judaism’s West Coast rabbinical school who has become a neo-Con Israeli cited several examples of young rabbinical students criticizing Israel in ways previous generations of rabbis would never have imagined. Gordis wrote of one rabbinical student studying in Israel who refused to purchase a new tallit (prayer shawl) if it was made in Israel. He told of another rabbinical student who traveled to Ramallah to celebrate his birthday, sitting at a bar  surrounded by posters extolling violence against Israel. The Gordis critique launched a massive back and forth of editorials on both sides of the debate.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn – The former head of the IMF was considered a front-runner for the French presidency. He would have been the first Jew to hold such a position since World War II. Dominique Strauss-Kahn resigned after he was jailed on charges of sexually assaulting a housekeeper in his room at the Sofitel hotel in New York this past spring. He was released from house arrest earlier this month after prosecutors said the hotel maid who accused the former director of the International Monetary Fund of rape lied to a grand jury. Strauss-Kahn still faces charges of rape. While his lawyers don’t deny there was a sexual encounter, they are calling for all charges against their client to be dropped.

Restructuring at USCJ – Perhaps the Conservative Movement’s central agency thought it could clean house in the middle of the summer when no one was paying attention. Think again. The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism continues to face a sharp decline in member synagogues as more congregations either refuse to pay dues or leave the movement altogether after merging with Reform congregations. In mid-June, USCJ announced it will undergo a major restructuring that includes the elimination of 27 percent of its 115 full-and part-time staff positions and a reduction in dues for those congregations that stay in the movement. This is all part of USCJ’s new strategic plan that was released in the winter.

Orthodox Teens and the Half Shabbat – The reports of Haredi Jewish teens sitting in a park on Shabbat texting their friends were shocking to the Orthodox world. What might have been even more shocking was that these Orthodox teens had given a name to their observance of Shabbat — “The Half Shabbat.” Several Jewish newspapers reported on this new culture among observant teens who just can’t seem to make it 25 hours without texting on their cellphones. The New York Jewish Week even reported that the practice has become so widespread that perhaps as many as half of Modern Orthodox teens text on Shabbat. Orthodox leaders, from youth group directors to yeshiva principals, are vowing to try to curb this violation among the teens.

Identity Cards – Israel’s Interior Minister Eli Yishai is determined to bring the term “Jew” back into Israeli identity cards under the “nationality” clause that was eradicated a decade ago. Only an Israeli who was either born Jewish or underwent an approved Orthodox conversion would be able to get this designation on the identity card. That means that those who underwent Reform or Conservative conversions would not be identified as Jewish even if they became disabled fighting for the Jewish state.

Gay Marriage in NY – It might not seem like a Jewish issue, but in NY just about everything becomes a Jewish issue. When the Marriage Equality Act in New York State passed in late June, the Jewish groups were divided in the obvious ways. The liberal Jewish organizations celebrated the news while the right leaning groups condemned it. The Anti-Defamation League called it “a significant step forward in the pursuit of individual liberty and freedom from discrimination for New Yorkers” while the Orthodox Union offered that marriage equality for gays and lesbians was “a mistake.” To bring even more debate in the Jewish community, the first gay wedding in New York will be an interfaith one. Rabbi Lev Baesh will officiate at the wedding of two lesbians this Saturday night in Westbury, NY at 11:00 p.m. (well after the end of Shabbat).

H&H Bagel Closes – For some, the closing of H&H Bagel in Manhattan will be just another example of the trying financial times that restaurants and food stores are facing these days. But for those who have ever lived in Manhattan (as I have), H&H Bagel was a staple of the Upper West Side and it was very sad to hear of its demise. The iconic bagel store appeared in “Seinfeld,” “Sex in the City,” and “Entourage.” Personally, I like a Detroit bagel better than New York’s version, but I still recognize that the shuttering of H&H is the end of an era for New York Jews.

Things have been exciting in the Jewish community so far this summer. But, hopefully, the second half of the summer will be quieter than the first half.

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

Michele Bachman’s Choot-spa Moment

While I am certainly no Yiddish maven, I know enough words and phrases to know that when someone mispronounces a Yiddish word it hurts my ears. For my maternal grandmother, who is fluent in Yiddish, when someone mangles the language of our eastern-European ancestors it really hurts her ears.

So, the other day when I heard Rep. Michele Bachman on Fox News attempt to pepper her kvetching about President Obama with a Yiddish word, I just figured that her botching of the Yiddish must have rendered my grandmother legally deaf.

Certain Yiddish words and phrases (Yiddishisms if you will) have entered the English language and should be treated as regular words. Maven, macher, kvetch, heimish, shtick, schlep, shpiel, klutz, nebish and kibbitz no longer require italics because they’re used routinely in English conversation. This means that they should be pronounced correctly. Now, I don’t expect non-Jews to be able to get out the guttural “ch” sound (as in Bach) when it comes to words like Chanukkah, l’chayim or tuchus. But at least pronounce them with the “h” sound rather than the “ch” sound as in Cheney or choo-choo.

Michele Bachman’s failing attempt to pronounce the word “chutzpah” correctly last week was nothing short of ignorant. The Think Progress blog summed up Michele Bachman’s “Yiddish fail” this way: “Like many of her GOP colleagues, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) has positioned herself as a staunch defender of Israel and friend of Jews everywhere against President Obama’s supposed lack of Jewish support. But she ran into some trouble while trying to trying to show off her Yiddish skills on Fox News last night, pronouncing the word “Chutzpah” — meaning audacity — as “choot-spa.” As with “Chanukah,” the “ch” should be pronounced as an “h” sound, but apparenly Bachmann missed that lesson in pandering school.”

Jon Stewart obviously couldn’t let Bachman’s gaffe go by without making fun of her. The host of the Daily Show deadpanned: “Choot-spa… it sounds like she’s talking out of her Tu-tzis!”

Here’s the video of Bachman’s chutzpadik comment:

Yiddish really is a wonderful language. The  fusion of Hebrew and German yields many clever words and phrases, blessings and curses. While many Jews no longer speak Yiddish, it is no longer a dying language either. The Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts and dozens of Yiddish departments at universities around the world are ensuring that the Yiddish language continues. Throughout the country there exist Yiddish clubs made up of young and old Yiddish enthusiasts who enjoy speaking Yiddish. In fact, the 14th conference of the International Association of Yiddish Clubs is taking place at the end of this summer right here in the Metro Detroit area.

I love when old Jewish men ask me if I speak Yiddish. “Redstu Yiddish?” they ask and I respond, “A Bissel.” I then throw out the handful of Yiddish phrases my grandparents taught me that are mostly things grandparents tell kids when they complain of boredom (Like “Go knock your head against the wall!”).

I’m glad that so many Yiddish words are now a part of everyday English. I just hope politicians like Michele Bachman make sure they hear the word pronounced before attempting to use it. Oh well… zei gezundt!

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

Motherhood and the Rabbinate: A Male Rabbi Responds

When we hear the words of the Torah being read this Shabbat morning, we’ll learn about a group of women who had a mutual goal and succeeded.

A man named Tzelafchad died without having any sons and the laws of inheritance in the Torah only recognized male heirs, making no provision for a deceased father’s land to be claimed by his female descendants. However, Tzelafchad’s daughters, Machlah, Noah, Chaglah, Milkah and Tirtzah, refused to reconcile themselves to this fact and petitioned Moses to grant them their father’s estate. Moses brought their claim to God, who responded: “The daughters of Tzelafchad speak right: thou shalt surely give them a possession of an inheritance among their father’s brethren; and thou shalt cause the inheritance of their father to pass unto them. And thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel, saying: If a man die, and have no son, then ye shall cause his inheritance to pass unto his daughter.”

These five women didn’t let the fact that they were women get in the way of changing history. And neither did the women who broke the gender barrier in the rabbinate. Prior to June 3, 1972, no woman had ever been ordained as a rabbi in the United States. On that date, Sally Priesand became the first woman rabbi in North America. The first Conservative rabbi wouldn’t be ordained for another eleven years when Rabbi Amy Eilberg graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

It is appropriate that we learn about the courageous daughters of Tzelafchad this week following an op-ed in the Forward written by a female rabbinical student from the Jewish Theological Seminary who argues that motherhood and the rabbinate don’t mix well. Chasya-Uriel Steinbauer, the mother of an infant daughter, is on leave from the Seminary while she stays at home to care for her daughter. Somehow she found the time (probably while her baby was napping) to post on the Forward’s Sisterhood blog that mothers who are practicing rabbis are just another example of the “Super Mom-syndrome now cloaked as the Super Ima-Rabbi syndrome.”

Well, I couldn’t disagree more. Maybe Chasya-Uriel Steinbauer is not able to balance motherhood with the life of a rabbinical student, but I have certainly witnessed many women who were able to strike this balance — and impressively so.

I remember my first day of rabbinical school orientation like it was yesterday. We sat around a conference room table introducing ourselves. Many of us were right out of college. Some were single, while others were either engaged or newly married. But there were also several older students in my rabbinical school class. I remember Paula Mack Drill introducing herself in her warm way by telling us that first and foremost she is the mother of four children ages nine to two-years-old. And she wasn’t the only woman in our class who would spend the next six years raising a family and fulfilling the necessary credits to graduate and become a rabbi. During rabbinical school, many of my female classmates became mothers for the first time (or for the second or third time). And many of the men (myself included) became fathers for the first time.

Was it challenging to be both a mommy (or daddy) and still manage to attend classes, study in the beit midrash, take exams and manage a part-time job? Of course it was. Just like it is a challenge to balance motherhood with medical school or law school or any other graduate school. But it can be done and it can be done without forsaking the children.

The experience of coupling motherhood with a career is something women fought for in the last century. The opening of the doors to women in the rabbinate was very much a result of the Women’s Liberation Movement. And Judaism is the better for it. This past Mother’s Day I wrote an article for JTA in praise of women rabbis. I wrote this because my rabbinate and my Jewish experience have only been enhanced by the presence of women rabbis.

From among my rabbinical school class alone, I’ve seen one of my female classmates go on to become an entrepreneur, founding a new congregation and being recognized as one of Newsweek Magazine’s top congregational rabbis. I saw another female classmate go on to become one of the highest ranking chaplains in the Navy. I saw other female classmates build small synagogues into larger, thriving communities. And these are only the women with whom I was ordained. Look around the Jewish world and you’ll see hundreds of women successfully raising their children while also educating, counseling, writing, leading organizations and preaching.

Chasya-Uriel Steinbauer urges, “I want us to question why we allow our lives to be set up in such ways where we feel that they have no choice but to work or attend school and thus leave our babies in the care of others.” You definitely have a choice. But many women in the 21st century are choosing to do the motherhood thing along with being an executive or a graduate student or a rabbi. It can be done and it can be done gracefully without any risk to the children.

I’m actually glad that Steinbauer wrote this because it gives us a chance to praise the women who balance motherhood with their careers. No one says these women have to do it alone. Help comes from devoted spouses, caring parents serving as loving grandparents, and talented nannies. Back in rabbinical school, there were many days when a baby would join us in class. Sometimes it was a mommy who brought the baby and sometimes it was a daddy. Not only did we not mind having a baby or two in class, we actually liked it. It was a testament that we didn’t have to check our parenthood responsibilities at the door of the Seminary. It is really no different than a rabbi who sits on the bimah (pulpit) with her baby. It is a scene that might have been odd a few decades ago, but today it is commonplace.

One rabbi who prides herself on also being a mother is Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, who blogs at Ima On (and Off) the Bima. I thought her response to Chasya-Uriel Steinbauer was perfect. Reminding everyone that she is an ima (mother) both on and off the bimah, she wrote:

I am both a mother and a rabbi. Some days I’m more ima. Some days I’m more bima. (See blog title.) Some days, I’m trying to make it all work. But I don’t think I’m doing it wrong. I just know that I’m doing it. I’ve created four wonderful little people and my husband and I delight in their growth of body and spirit. We definitely juggle, we definitely argue over who goes where and when.

I hope Chasya-Uriel Steinbauer returns to rabbinical school soon. I’m sure she’ll become a talented rabbi while being a nurturing and devoted mother too. These are not mutually exclusive roles in life. It might just take her a few years to figure that out.

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

Jennifer Aniston Says Shabbat Shalom

In what is certainly a first, a big name celebrity says “Shabbat Shalom” in a movie.

“Horrible Bosses” starring Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Colin Farrell, and Donald Sutherland has a scene in which Jennifer Aniston exclaims, “Shabbat Shalom!” Here’s a clip:

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

Jewish Summer Camp: A Father’s Reflection Upon His Son’s First Time at Sleepaway Camp

A few days before my oldest child ventured off to summer camp for the first time, I read a beautiful prayer by my colleague Rabbi Phyllis Sommer. On her “Ima On (and Off) the Bima” blog, she shared her prayer as her son embarked on his second summer away at camp. Titled “A Mama’s Prayer for Summer Camp,” she offered the following words:

May you find learning and growth of all kinds.
May you gain independence and feel comfort in your Jewish identity.
May the mosquitoes be guided away from you, and may the raindrops not fall into your tent (too much).
May the food be delicious and the pool the right temperature.
May you seek out new experiences and try new things (vegetables would be nice but I’m doubtful).
May you smile brilliantly for the camp photographer and show up daily in the online photo albums…

Rabbi Phyllis ended her beautiful prayer, “May you return home in one piece with all your belongings, and may you ever yearn to return to the land of summer camp.”

My son returns home from summer camp this morning. He was only gone for ten days, but these were the longest ten days of my life. I truly missed him like crazy. I had only been apart from him for this long twice before when I led trips to Israel, but at least then I knew he was safe at home with his mommy.

Like any father, I was worried about him. He wasn’t in a strange place because he essentially grew up at this Jewish summer camp. We spent the past several summers there as a family while I worked as the rabbi of the camping agency. But this was his first time away from home by himself so I was naturally concerned. Would he make new friends? Would he get enough sleep at night? Would he remember to put on sunscreen? Would he be homesick?

Inspired by Rabbi Phyllis’s prayer, I’ve constructed my own prayer for my son as he returns home to us this morning from his first summer at sleepaway camp:

Tashuv Eleinu… May you return to us feeling energized by your first experience at camp.
Tashuv Eleinu… May you return to us having forged lasting friendships.
Tashuv Eleinu… May you return to us a little more mature and a little more independent.
Tashuv Eleinu… May you return to us feeling pride in your Jewish identity.
Tashuv Eleinu… May you return to us free of sunburn and too many mosquito bites.
Tashuv Eleinu… May you return to us having missed us but without having been homesick.
Tashuv Eleinu… May you return to us eager to share your camp memories with us.
Tashuv Eleinu… May you return to us ready to return to camp for many more magical summers to come.

As a father, I am so grateful for the powerful gift of Jewish summer camp and I am confident that my son’s experiences of the past week-and-a-half have ignited a Jewish summer camping spark in him.

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

Facebook Group or Private Social Network for Synagogues?

In my last year of rabbinical school, I had an interesting conversation with a rabbi of a large congregation. He told me that he had put his foot down and refused to let his congregation create a synagogue-wide email LISTSERV. His rationale? This forum would be used by the membership to complain about the synagogue… and the rabbi.

I gently suggested to my future colleague that if his members were going to use an email discussion group to complain about the congregation, they were likely already doing this in real-time at kiddush (the reception following services). He laughed and acknowledged I was correct. I’m sure that in the ensuing years he acquiesed and allowed for an email LISTSERV.

Developed in 1986 by Eric Thomas, LISTSERV was the first email list software application. The simple LISTSERV, an automated mailing list manager, allowed for likeminded individuals in a group to disseminate email messages to one another. The features of such a platform were minimal. The threads were difficult to follow. In digest format, there were several discussions arriving in the inbox all at once with no logical grouping order. Today, the email LISTSERV has long since run its course. Even the next generation of these discussion groups (Yahoo! Groups, Deja News which became Google Groups, the London-based GroupSpaces, etc.) are limited in features.

Today, Facebook has made these discussion groups unecessary. The Facebook Group application allows for the dissemination of rich content in a secure, private network. I have helped many synagogues transition from the old LISTSERV and email-based group platforms to the Facebook Groups application. As I tell rabbis and synagogue executives all the time: There are over 750 million Facebook users worldwide so there’s a good chance that your congregants are already signed on.

Facebook Groups allow for smaller cohorts within a congregation to have a forum to share ideas, documents, links to articles, photos, videos, and promote events. It is private and secure with at least one administrator monitoring the group.

Recently, when encouraging synagogues to start using the Facebook Groups application, I’ve been met with some resistence. Facebook isn’t secure, they argue. They’ve heard that there is really no privacy with Facebook. They argue that a Private Social Network must be the way to go. I disagree and here’s why.

Private Social Networks are certainly great apps and they have features galore. At first glance, applications like SocialGO and Yammer seem like the perfect solution for a company or organization that wants to have a social network that is open to only their employees or members. For many companies, these private social networks might make the most sense because once the employees are logged into Facebook, there will likely be many hours of unproductivity.

Synagogues and temples are different however. In that respect, I say use the network where the members are already participating. And that is obviously Facebook.

The Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly recently announced a deal through a partnership with SocialGo that allows member rabbis to contract with the private social network company to create a web-based social network for their congregation. These private social networks have all the features and functionality as Facebook Groups, but cost a discounted $500 and then $25 per month. Facebook is free and everyone already has an account (or knows how to get one simply enough). Having people log in to another platform is tedious when they are already using Facebook on a daily basis and can simply use the Groups application to interface with the congregation’s forums.

In terms of privacy, these Facebook Groups are just as private as LISTSERV groups were and continue to be. One must request to be a member of the group or be invited to participate in the discussions and view the content. Breaches of privacy can happen the same way there can be a breach of privacy from a face-to-face conversation. A group is only as private as its members allow it to be. The bottom line is that congregations shouldn’t complicate matters by creating their own private social network. It’s unnecessary. Save your money because Facebook Groups will work just fine.

Cross-posted to the Jewish Techs Blog at The NY Jewish Week

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