Re’eh – Giving Blessings Not Curses

It has become very common for businesses and organizations to send out weekly email messages to their list of subscribers. There is nothing unusual about that. But I’ve noticed an increasing number of individuals who have begun to share their own wisdom and commentary on the issues of the day with their friends and family.

Each week, I receive many weekly newsletters that arrive in my email inbox from synagogues across the country and Israel, but I’ve also begun to receive weekly email messages from individuals. Like the synagogue newsletters, these weekly missives from individuals include some insights about the weekly Torah portion. These individuals have realized that through email they have developed their own pulpit from which to disseminate information and offer their teaching. Through word-of-mouth, they have amassed a following through their distribution list.

Sometimes these individuals intentionally comment on the weekly Torah portion and other times they do so coincidentally. I noticed that the latter was the case this week when I received Josh Linkner’s weekly message. The serial entrepreneur and motivational business speaker from Detroit titled his weekly email “Caught in the Act”.  The essence of his message is that it’s better to bless someone than to curse them. Linkner might not have realized that this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, is all about blessings and curses. He writes:

Bosses, parents, teachers, clergy and government officials are well trained to catch you doing something wrong. There are elaborate systems for checks and balances, controls and consequences. It’s apparently very important to catch the mischievous child or the wayward employee in the act of disobedience.

With so much effort spent catching people doing something wrong, it’s time to start catching each other doing something right.

In our society, wide spread labeling is an insidious force that robs individuals of achieving their true potential. When a parent tells a child they are average, slow, or stupid, these sharp words become a self-fulfilling prophecy as the erroneous labels are internalized. When a boss repeatedly lashes out at a team member pointing out their every flaw, confidence becomes shattered and performance plummets.

The good news is that labeling can work the other way too. Catch a team member in the act of delivering great work, and you’ll inject her with confidence and energy. Label a colleague a rock-star, and they’ll kick out the work version of a Grammy.

This week, let’s all flip the poison of negative labeling, and catch each other and ourselves in the act – in the act of doing things right. These new, positive labels will tip the scales in favor of results, momentum, and overall achievement.

This week’s Torah portion begins with the words, “Look, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse.” The question is which one we will choose. In the Torah’s case, the contextual understanding of the text is that God sets forth a blessing and a curse in front of us and we are to decide which one we’ll receive. Another way of understanding the text, however, is that we all have the ability to choose to bless others or to curse them.

Tuesday marks the beginning of the new Jewish month of Elul, which is a time of deep reflection and introspection for members of the Jewish faith as we prepare for the Days of Awe (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur). I hope we will all take Josh Linkner’s message to heart during this season.

When faced with offering a blessing or a curse to someone I encourage you to remember what my mother taught me from a very young age: “You get more bees with honey.” Blessing others with kind words, motivational encouragement and compliments will lead to you feeling blessed as well.

Shabbat Shalom.

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

MC Hammer Performs at Jewish National Fund Party

For generations, fundraising efforts for the Jewish National Fund have centered around dropping loose change into little blue metal boxes. In fact, stories abound regarding the millions of dollars sent to the JNF from Hebrew School children to plant forests and make the dessert bloom in Israel during the first decades of statehood.

Apparently, the Jewish National Fund has now moved on from the little blue boxes (pushkes) and is ready to try something new. If the JNF was able to make the dessert bloom then perhaps it won’t be such a monumental task to revive the career of 1990s rapper MC Hammer. Yes, THAT MC Hammer!

On September 22 in Toronto the JNF will host its Future Party and it will be “Hammer Time.” I’m not sure exactly what the conversation sounded like when the Toronto branch of the JNF was planning this Future Party. What other names were thrown out before they arrived at MC Hammer? Did they consider Bobby Brown or Tone Loc? Maybe Kid ‘n Play would be a bigger draw, I’m not sure.

I certainly hope the crowd will come out for what will definitely be a nostalgic evening for many of the young adults who were in middle school and high school when MC Hammer was turning out hits like “U Can’t Touch This” and “Hammer Time”.

The event benefits a very important cause. Proceeds raised from the Future Party will go toward the development of a sports field at the Yafit Park complex in Kibbutz HaHotrim in the northern Carmel coast. The project will fund a multi-functional sports field where the kibbutz residents can enjoy games of football, volleyball and basketball. In 2000, the kibbutz economy collapsed, and as a result the community underwent radical changes in its socioeconomic structure.

Tickets for the Future Party featuring MC Hammer can be purchased online.

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

Al Sharpton’s Apology As a Lesson in Repentance for the Jewish High Holidays

Last week about 20 rabbis from the Los Angeles area participated in a High Holiday sermon writing workshop called “Punching Up Your Holiday Sermons.” These pre-Rosh Hashanah sermon workshops for rabbis are nothing new, but this workshop had a twist. It paired the rabbis with Hollywood screenwriters who helped them come up with more engaging sermons.

It’s possible, however, that Rev. Al Sharpton has been more helpful to rabbis writing their High Holiday sermons this year than these talented screenwriters. His recent mea culpa may be the subject of many sermons heard in synagogues this High Holiday season.

Rev. Al has been in the news a lot lately. Just the other day it was announced that he will be hosting his own show on MSNBC to be called “PoliticsNation,” which will debut on August 29. Sharpton will become the network’s only African-American host.

This is good news for Sharpton, who made headlines recently when he wrote an apologetic Op-Ed piece in the NY Daily News in which he admitted to making mistakes during the racially fueled Crown Heights riots 20 years ago. Sharpton has long been blamed for inflaming tensions between Blacks and Jews in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn in 1991. It all began when a car in the late Lubavitcher Rebbe’s motorcade struck and killed an African American boy. Many argue that Sharpton incited the angry crowd leading to the fatal stabbing during the riots of Jewish student Yankel Rosenbaum.

In his apology Sharpton wrote, “Twenty years after the Crown Heights riots, the city has grown, and I believe I have grown. I’d like to share a few of my reflections about the choices I made, including the mistakes, with an eye toward advancing racial understanding and harmony.”

Sharpton concluded his Op-Ed with a reflection from an experience he had at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He wrote:

I would have shared a story about what happened when, as a young man, I was brought to the Jewish Theological Seminary by one of the civil rights leaders who had been an aide to Dr. King.

That day, I was introduced to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Rabbi Heschel had marched with Dr. King in Selma in support of the Voting Rights Act. For doing so, Heschel was attacked by some in his community who were very conservative and thought a theologian should stay in his proper place. He gave me a book and autographed it and, as we talked, I asked him about Dr. King — the man and the hero.

That’s when Dr. Heschel said to me: “Young man, only big men can achieve big things. Small men cannot fulfill big missions. Dr. King was a big man.”

Crown Heights showed how some of us, in our smallness, can divide. We must seek to be big. Next weekend, we will unveil the monument to Martin Luther King in Washington. I will speak at the ceremony along with members of the King family and the President of the United States.

I will continue to think about the value of the lives of Gavin Cato and Yankel Rosenbaum as I look up at the big statue of Dr. King. I will look towards the heavens and I will wink at Rabbi Heschel.

Not everyone seems to be ready to move on even if it has been twenty years since the Crown Heights riots. Last week, Sharpton was forced to back out from a scheduled panel discussion on the riots at the Hampton Synagogue after the synagogue’s rabbi, Marc Schneier, came under fire for the event by Yankel Rosenbaum’s family among others.

I think we should take Sharpton at his word. A cynic might say that he believed he needed to apologize for his role in the riots in order to get his show on MSNBC. However, after reading his apology I feel it is sincere. Many apologies by celebrities these days take place before the guilty individual has really had an opportunity to think about their mistakes, not to mention most of those apologies have been written by publicists. Sharpton had twenty long years to consider what he did and appeared contrite in his published apology.

What Sharpton did is what we call “teshuvah” (repentance) in Judaism and it is precisely what is called for before and during the High Holidays. Sharpton’s apology will be a fitting example for rabbis to share with their congregations on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Rev. Al Sharpton restated what he did in the situation and then explained why it was misguided and why he won’t do it again. I’m sure twenty years ago Sharpton never thought he’d ever be able to apologize for his actions during the Crown Heights riots, but he just might become an example to the Jewish community for doing teshuvah. The two unnecessary deaths in 1991 must be remembered and mourned, but the time has come for the Black and Jewish communities to move on from the Crown Heights riots.

Black-Jewish relations have certainly improved in the two decades since Crown Heights. A recent video on the Funny or Die website demonstrates just how much commonality exists between Blacks and Jews. In fact, two of the artists mentioned in the song (the Jewish performer Drake and the Jewish biracial artist Lenny Kravitz) have collaborated on a new track called “Sunflower” for Kravitz’s upcoming album “Black and White in America.” Maybe Sharpton will have Drake and Lenny Kravitz perform on his new MSNBC show.

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

Matisyahu, Moishe House and Kickball: Detroit’s Coming Back

The last time I was at Belle Isle, the almost 1,000-acre island park in the Detroit River (the largest in the United States), was in the mid-1980s. I don’t remember if I was there to go to the aquarium (which closed in 2005) or the zoo, but I know I haven’t been there since. Today, Belle Island is most known for the Detroit Grand Prix, the Indy Car League auto race around the island, but that hasn’t taken place since 2008 due to the automotive industry’s economic crisis.

Crime has kept many in the Metro Detroit Jewish community from venturing down to Belle Isle in recent decades, but a young cadre of Detroit Jews is set to change that. Come Play Detroit’s Justin Jacobs planned a dodgeball game on Belle Isle that would seek to break the world record for most people playing in one game of dodgeball. Yesterday’s game had 1,800 players (a good number in Judaism) and was ESPN SportCenter’s #10 play of the day. While it wasn’t enough to set the world record (2,136 in Rochester, NY), it was an impressive showing.

Jacobs tells me that sports leagues for young Jewish Detroiters will continue on Belle Isle with softball and kickball leagues. And speaking of kickball, there is a kickball tournament in Los Angeles today (Kick for Detroit) that is sponsored by Community Next and seeks to reconnect young adults with the city of Detroit and raise money for improvement projects in Detroit.

As I’ve written before, we are seeing a real renaissance here in Detroit and it’s being led by young members of the Jewish community. This is making headlines around the country. Rabbi Yonah Bookstein wrote about the rebirth of Jewish life in Downtown Detroit today in the Jewish Journal Los Angeles today, citing such initiatives as Motor City Moishe House, Repair the World, and the saving of the landmark Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue.

Here’s native Detroiter Rabbi Bookstein’s article:

Matisyahu stood out in front of the crowd. He had just stage-dived head first off of a 15 foot-high stack of speakers from the side of the stage. The crowd held him aloft and returned him to the stage as if rehearsed.

“Detroit,” he yelled into the microphone, “you are f***ing crazy!”

The crowd roared back.

Lights made the already stifling heat even more unbearable. How they could continue to play?

Yet, an hour into the show, the pace and intensity of the music was growing. The crowd jumping up and down to the beat of the music. Rivers of sweat ran off the drummer who was shirtless by the end.

With over 1,000 people packed into the air-condition-less hall, many took turns outside on the front steps of St. Andrews. It was that hot inside.

When the band finished, and walked offstage, the crowd would not leave. They started to chant for more.

Matisyahu, already drenched head to toe, returned with his signature anthem of peace, “One Day.” He brought dozens of concert-goers on stage to accompany him. St. Andrews Hall pulsed with sweat, cheers. Across the room of outstretched arms the crowed chanted the words at the top of their lungs unmoved by the searing heat.

Earlier in the day, a few miles from the venue, I brought Matisyahu to visit the newly established Motor City Moishe House. The community and residents transformed a historic home which once housed a venerable rabbi of yesteryear into a communal home, part of the national Moishe House network.

In this blighted neighborhood, Detroit’s Jewish community is banking on this collective to be a hub of programming for young adults. Theough opened only months ago, at least fifty people showed up with just two days notice to meet the singer and enjoy a vegan feast prepared by a young kosher caterer.

When I was growing up in Detroit in the 1970’s and 80’s, the notion that Jews would return to the city — literally the areas of old Detroit that housed the core of the community for a hundred years — was a remote fantasy. The community had been moving to the suburbs since the 1950’s. By the time I was born, the Jewish community, all the synagogues and temples had moved to the suburbs. My parents choice to live in the city was never quite understood. Two small shuls stuck it out.

It’s no secret that Detroit is on the ropes. The city is a shadow if its former self, even with gorgeous new stadiums for baseball and football. Miles of the city have been razed and nature is reclaiming them. Miles of empty commercial real estate line the streets of the sprawling suburbs. Corruption and mismanagement were rampant and reached their zenith when the mayor was arrested two years ago.

However, Detroit’s Jewish community, who live almost entirely in the suburbs, is not ready to give up on a city that has such a rich and vibrant Jewish past. In addition to the new Moishe House, and a Repair the World volunteer, a landmark synagogue recently was saved. The Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue was about to close its doors and sell their building after 90 years.

The situation had been so bad that they needed to recruit the bartender of a nearby night club to make a minyan. A group of my contemporaries, old shul members, and younger Jews have banded together and saved the shul. The compelling saga was even covered by NPR who ran a story about it.

Detroit’s Jews are resilient and instead of closing the Downtown Synagoge, they celebrated their 90th with 300 people.

As the Motor City’s modern bard Eminem, offers, “Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity…Would you capture it or just let it slip?”

I’m looking forward to taking my family to Belle Isle. It’s been too long!

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that there was also a bike tour of Old Jewish Detroit yesterday in which 150 bikers got to see the old neighborhoods and landmarks of Jewish Detroit up close. Here’s a link to the Detroit Free Press coverage.

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

The High School Reunion in the Age of Facebook

In addition to writing the “Jewish Techs” blog for The NY Jewish Week, I am now writing a monthly technology column for the Detroit Jewish News titled “Jews in the Digital Age”. My first column (published this week) looked at how Facebook has affected the high school reunion. Have you noticed a difference (positive or negative) in high school reunions in the past few years as Facebook has grown in popularity?

Originally published in the Detroit Jewish News:

The High School Reunion in the Age of Facebook
By Rabbi Jason Miller

We love to play Jewish geography, know who married whom, and keep up with the latest gossip (uh, I mean news) about our high school classmates. In the pre-Web 2.0 era that meant attending a high school reunion each decade to get reacquainted with everyone’s lives. Today, with just about every human being using Facebook, times have changed. What has Facebook done to the high school reunion?

Sharon Landau Levine, 57, of Oak Park attended her 40th high school reunion earlier this summer. The 1971 graduate of Oak Park High School made certain to attend her 10th, 20th and 30th reunions as well, but this summer’s reunion was different.

“I think Facebook enhanced this reunion a million times and a lot of my classmates would say the same thing,” she explained. “The planning of the reunion was much easier with Facebook and so was staying connected after the event. The planning committee launched a Facebook page to publicize the reunion and later added a second Facebook page that has become an ongoing discussion group.” In fact, after Levine’s reunion, posts began appearing on the Facebook page announcing regular get-togethers for classmates to catch up in person and for out-of-towners to join in using Skype – the video conferencing application.

Jason Klein, 38, of Bloomfield Hills used his Facebook clout to publicize his recent 20th reunion and encourage classmates to register for the event. The 1991 West Bloomfield High School graduate didn’t help in planning his 10th reunion, but when it came time for the 20th reunion Klein stepped forward.

“In today’s world with Facebook, how hard can it be?” Klein figured. “So we made the decision to solely market our reunion through Facebook. We had to hire a company for our 10th reunion, but the world was so different then. This time around, we said Facebook must be a more efficient way to do this. We’ll save money on postage and we won’t have to pay an external company.”

Through his company, Medtipster.com in Troy, Klein solicited the help of his web developer to create a website that promoted the reunion and accepted paid registrations. Klein posted weekly updates on his personal Facebook profile and on the reunion’s Facebook page listing the names of classmates who had registered and encouraging other classmates to follow suit.

While Klein attributes the good attendance at the reunion to his Facebook publicity campaign, he also sees the downside of Facebook’s effect on the high school reunion. “I believe Facebook has killed the reunion. I’ve only been on Facebook for a few years, but I already knew a lot about my classmates before the reunion. It took away the surprise factor.”

Ken Bertin, 65, of West Bloomfield is no stranger to planning reunions. He’s planned six of them so far and sometimes for two classes at once. While he is quick to acknowledge that his cohort is not the most active demographic on Facebook, he concedes that the social networking site has been helpful in locating “lost” classmates. The Mumford High School alum recently planned a Hampton Junior High reunion too. “Facebook has given me contact with people so I get their email address and I can then contact them without paying for postage,” he said.

Bertin estimates that his “35-year-old daughter has 80% of her classmates on Facebook, whereas my class has 25-30%” However, recent studies have shown that the fastest growing demographic on Facebook is the over 60-years-old crowd. One major change Bertin has noticed is that now his classmates are expecting him to post photos from the reunion immediately after the event. “Many people who won’t be able to make the Hampton reunion contacted me asking if I would post photos from the event on Facebook,” he explained.

Some people have even felt coerced to join Facebook because there was no other form of communication leading up to their reunion. That was the case for John Kuderik, a CPA in Royal Oak, who was told that if he didn’t join Facebook he wouldn’t know anything about the plans for his reunion. He’s now connected to the classmates he hadn’t seen or heard from in over two decades, and he’s kept updated on their daily activities. But he’s not convinced that’s such a great thing.

Brad Feldman, of Farmington Hills, who recently attended his 20th Groves High School reunion, said that Facebook was a much discussed theme at the event. References to photos and other postings became topics of conversation at the reunion, and classmates posted photos from the reunion in the days following. He believes that Facebook activity might have kept some of his classmates, especially the out-of-towners, from attending since they felt they were already sufficiently updated on their classmates’ lives.

Facebook has had both positive and negative effects on the high school reunion. Some younger people believe that some of the excitement and nostalgia is gone from reunions because of all the reconnecting through social networking sites. Overall, however, Facebook has been helpful to reunion planners as a resource for promoting the event and locating classmates.

While Facebook is the killer app of our generation, no social networking website can replace the human interaction of a reunion. The face-to-face reconnections are the best form of social networking that exists.

Rabbi Jason Miller (@rabbijason) is a tech expert who writes about how information technology and social media are transforming the Jewish community. He writes the “Jewish Techs” blog for The NY Jewish Week and is president of Access Computer Technology (www.accesscomptech.com), based in West Bloomfield.

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

Ekev – Standing Strong for Israel

A few years ago I was on my way to pick up my son from the Jewish Community Center, where he was in day care. Just a mile from the JCC I had to pull over to allow fire engines and police cars pass. I didn’t think too much of the blaring sirens and flashing lights until I realized they were headed for the JCC. When I arrived at my destination a police officer wouldn’t allow me to enter the parking lot. “But my son is inside and I need to get him,” I pleaded. I asked the officer what was happening, but he wouldn’t tell me.

Was it a bomb threat? Had there been an accident? Was anyone hurt? After a short while I learned that an old television set had been left outside on the sidewalk and it was mysterious enough to call the authorities. Once there was an “all clear,” I was allowed to enter and noticed how calm it was inside. No one in my son’s school had even known that the building was on lock-down. Thankfully, nothing happened. I was able to pick up my son who I obviously hugged a little tighter that day.

As I drove away with my child, I was thankful for his safety and immediately considered that this is how Israelis live on a daily basis. The minor ulcer I had as I thought the worst is a more typical feeling for parents in Israel. While things had been relatively calm in Israel for a while, that all changed with yesterday’s terrorist attack that killed nine in Eilat, the southern resort town, and today as thirty rockets struck Israel headed for the port cities of Ashkelon and Ashdod.

What I had experienced was a random event that lasted for only a few minutes and turned out to be nothing. But in Israel there is a certain normalcy to such events.

This Shabbat, we read Parashat Ekev, which contains the command to give thanks to God for the food we eat. V’achalta v’savata u’verachta — “When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Lord your God.” The Kotzker Rebbe taught that saying the Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals) is the fundamental mitzvah in that all of us are capable to feel grateful that the earth produced food for us to eat. Reciting Birkat Hamazon, like reciting a blessing before the meal, elevates the activity of eating from simply a physical routine into the realm of the sacred. But it also connects us to the Land of Israel — the Jewish homeland. The land that we are thanking God for in the blessings is the land of Israel.

Just last week, we observed Tisha B’Av, the Jewish people’s national day of mourning. Like reciting Birkat Hamazon after meals, the somber memorial day forces us to feel a connection with Israel. Tisha B’Av is not a day for only Israelis to grieve because the destroyed Temples were located in Israel. It is a day for all Jews to grieve because the Temples were our holy temples and they were on our land in Israel.

When we thank God for our food by thanking God for the land, let us remember which land we are referring to. And when we mourn for the destruction of the temples, let us remember how we are connected to the land on which those temples stood. It is through the land of Israel that the Jewish people throughout the world are connected. And through our connection to the land, we are connected to the people in Israel who are being attacked by terrorists yet again.

Today, it is incumbent upon all Jews to stand with Israel. We must support the men, women and children who are living on the same land we refer to when we thank God for the food we eat. Am Yisrael Chai.

Shabbat Shalom.

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

My Teacher Rabbi Burt Visotzky Does Dinner with President Barack Obama

It’s not everyday that you know someone who gets to have a meal with the President of the United States. Last week, one of my favorite teachers (if I don’t say “one of” I’m bound to offend) had just that honor.

Rabbi Burt Visotzky, whose Midrash courses at the Jewish Theological Seminary I thoroughly enjoyed, was invited to the White House for the annual Iftar dinner and had the privilege of sitting at the President’s table.

This year the Jewish month of Av coincides with the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, a time when pious Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset to show their devotion to Allah. After dark, they break their daylong fast with an evening meal known as the Iftar. President Thomas Jefferson hosted the first Iftar dinner at the White House and it became an annual tradition under President Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and is now hosted by President Barack Obama.

This year’s White House Iftar meal was held on August 10 with approximately 120 guests, including two Jewish people in addition to Rabbi Visotzky. Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren (pictured with me at right) and Bahraini Ambassador Houda Ezra Ebrahim Nonoo.

According to a JTS press release, Rabbi Visotzky sat at President Obama’s table and brought the president up-to-date on JTS’s most recent and noted Jewish-Muslim dialogue programs, along with JTS’s other forms of Jewish-Muslim engagement, including 2010’s two-day workshop entitled “Judaism and Islam in America” and this past May’s “Our Better Angels,” a three-part program that anticipated the 10th anniversary of 9/11 through Jewish, Christian, and Muslim discussions on the themes of tragedy, mourning, and healing.

While it’s usually teachers who are proud of their students, I must say that I feel much pride for my teacher Rabbi Burt Visotzky’s devotion to Jewish-Muslim dialogue and his great honor last week.

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

Rabbi Seeks Young Wife for Cheaper Health Insurance

When I first read the headline of this NPR blog post (“For Love Or Insurance? Rabbi Seeks Young Wife To Lower Health Costs”) I couldn’t even imagine what this was all about. It turns out there’s a rabbi in Florida who needs better health insurance coverage and is looking for a young wife to make it happen.

Turns out that Rabbi Craig Ezring, a nursing home chaplain, was able to get decent insurance before his wife died. He and his wife established a small corporation to procure health insurance, but when his wife died four years ago his rates soared 38 percent to over $18,000 just to cover him. The 56-year-old rabbi comes from a very rabbinic family. His father Abraham Ezring is an Orthodox rabbi in Florida and all of his brothers are rabbis as well, including Rabbi Murray Ezring, a Conservative rabbi in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The NPR blog post isn’t the first time Rabbi Craig Ezring has made news. In 2005, his funny yet insightful “Dear Abby” letter was published. Ezring letter titled “Oy Vey! Rabbi Is Exposed to Patient’s Discomfort,” told the story of how Ezring, as a chaplain, would visit hospital patients wearing a three-piece suit. One patient, he explained, felt terribly uncomfortable lying there “in a hospital gown with her tuchas sticking out” while the rabbi sat there in a three-piece suit. So, Ezring went to the nurse’s station and changed into a hospital gown. The patient was then relaxed enough to share her concerns with the rabbi/chaplain.

He concludes, “The visit took a little longer than usual, and when I finished our session with a prayer for healing, I rose from the chair. As I did, the sound as my thighs ripped themselves from the Naugahyde brought a huge smile to both our faces. I was laughing so hard I forgot to hold the back of the gown as I headed back down the hall — so I was exposed… Fortunately, the nurses had a sense of humor. One said, ‘Not a bad tush for a rabbi!'”

Rabbi Ezring explains in his “Dear Abby” letter that he learned an important lesson that day. Abby commends him for his sensitivity and creativity. She writes, “Your suit may have been off for her, but my hat is off to you for going the extra mile to make a difference in a sick woman’s life. Your method may have been unorthodox, but your message of healing far surpassed any fashion statement.”

Now back to the rabbi’s search for a young bride who will help lower his health insurance rates. From the NPR blog post:

When Rabbi Craig Ezring’s annual health insurance costs soared 38 percent this year to a whopping $18,636, he did more than just complain.

He went looking for a young wife.

For several years, the Boca Raton, Fla., rabbi had been getting coverage through a small corporation he formed with his wife. When she died four years ago, he thought the cost of his insurance coverage would drop. Instead it rose.

That’s partly because Ezring, 56, had a heart bypass surgery a couple of years ago. Nonetheless, he said he’s still quite healthy, and does ballroom and Latin dancing twice a week.

When he got his latest health insurance bill in August, Ezing said he almost had a heart attack.

An insurance broker told him his small business insurance rate is based on the age of the owner of the company. So, Ezring posted on his blog that he was looking for a younger woman who wouldn’t mind marrying him to help him get cheaper coverage.

“Give some thought to the possibility of marrying me … a good insurance plan is all I ask,” he wrote. “Okay there maybe one or two other things I ask for, but sadly, right now insurance has become a top priority.”

Ezring, a rabbi at several nursing homes and assisted living facilities in South Florida, said he’s had a few “comical offers” of marriage in response to his plea, including one asking if he wanted to move to South Carolina.

Ezring said his insurer, UnitedHealthcare, has been good to him: The company makes sure he gets services he needs and can see the doctors he wants. But with the latest rate hike, he feels like he’s working mostly just to afford his health coverage. He’s shopped for other policies, but other companies won’t offer him coverage.

When told that Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who vehemently opposes the federal health overhaul, is only paying about $400 a year for his state-subsidized health insurance, Ezring chuckled. “It would be lovely if everyone could pay that amount for really good insurance,” he said.

Rabbi Ezring seems like a pretty funny (and creative) guy. I wish him well in his quest to get less expensive health insurance, but even if he isn’t successful in that endeavor at least he was able to spread the word about how expensive medical coverage is in our country.

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

Va’etchanan – Loving God Through Stem Cell Research

One of the oddest of the 613 commandments offered in the Torah is found in this week’s Torah portion. On Shabbat morning, Jews all over the world will hear the words of Va’etchanan read aloud, including the commandment that we are to “to love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” Even young children pick up on the fact that it’s odd for God to command us to love God. After all, love is a feeling and commanding a human being to have an emotion seems strange.

However, there are ways for us to express our love for God that transcend our emotions. We can love God in physical ways as well. Our actions toward the betterment of people’s lives are a reflection of our loving relationship with the Divine. If we believe that God created humans and we were partners in the creation of the world, then we have a responsibility to help other humans be healthy and live long lives.

In his commentary on the Torah, Rashi explains that “with all your heart” means that we should serve God with all our powers for goodness, compassion and charity.

Last night I had the pleasure to learn from one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. Dr. Eva Feldman, of the Taubman Institute at the University of Michigan, is using her knowledge, talent and heart to change the world for the better.

Feldman, a soft-spoken professor of neurology at the University of Michigan’s School of Medicine, has made significant contributions to the fight against ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and Diabetes in a very short period of time. Last night, she explained to a living room full of some of Metro Detroit’s young adults how her clinical trial of a stem cell therapy for ALS has allowed dozens of patients to walk better.

A. Alfred Taubman, the Michigan shopping mall magnate and mega-philanthropist, helped create the Taubman Medical Research Institute with a $22 million endowment in 2007 and named Feldman as the institute’s first director in January 2008. (Taubman is the University of Michigan’s largest individual donor, with total giving of more than $142 million including $100 million specifically for innovative medical science.)

Three years ago, Dr. Feldman and the Taubman Institute educated citizens in Michigan about the importance of stem cell research in the study and treatment of disease, which led to voters approving a constitutional amendment lifting restrictions on stem cell research. As a result of the election, the Taubman Institute opened the first core facilities in Michigan to derive embryonic stem cell lines (one of the few in the nation).

Dr. Eva Feldman is a pioneer in this field of medical science, but she has also learned to be a quiet fighter. She has to fight against politicians who seek to make her research illegal and she has to fight against those who claim that what she is doing is unethical. Some even accuse her of playing God. There are many who cite their religious beliefs to criticize Dr. Feldman’s work, but I am convinced that her research comes from a place of deep compassion for humanity. Dr. Feldman is motivated to find ways to treat and cure disease. She does this through the power of modern scientific and medical innovation. She explained to our group that she is pro-life because she uses the leftover frozen embryos created for couples using IVF to have children. These embryos would have been destroyed in a garbage disposal, but Dr. Feldman is able to use these stem cell lines to learn more about genetic diseases, create treatments for suffering patients, and help find cures for such life-threatening conditions as cancer, ALS, and Diabetes.

We were all created in the image of God and we owe it to each other to use modern science and medical innovation to benefit the lives of God’s creatures. Using stem cells to fight (and potentially cure) diseases isn’t playing God, but it is a form of loving God. Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev taught that it can be determined if a person really loves God by the love they bear toward others. Dr. Eva Feldman strikes me as this type of person.

Shabbat Shalom.

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

Kippah Your Head Covering Outta My Office

Kippah. Yarmulke. Beanie. Skullcap. You can call it whatever you want, but the Jewish head covering has been in the news and in pop culture a lot lately.

The New York Post reports that an Italian man is suing McKinsey & Co., the international consulting firm, claiming he was fired after repeatedly complaining to human resources that his colleagues made fun of his yarmulke. Ciro Rosselli claims in papers filed in Manhattan federal court yesterday that he wore a yarmulke in the McKinsey & Co. offices where he worked as an executive assistant and was discriminated against for it. I know there are several McKinsey & Co. employees who wear a yarmulke to work. Rosselli’s case is interesting, however, because he’s not even Jewish. He was wearing the Jewish head covering while practicing “theosophy,” an obscure spiritual philosophy that maintains that “there is no higher religion than truth.”

Rosselli’s colleagues at McKinsey & Co. gave him a hard time about his kippah. He claims his boss compared him to Madonna, the Kaballah-loving celebrity who has embraced Judaism despite the fact that she’s Christian. Another co-worker suggested that Rosselli was just trying “to hide his bald spot.” According to the lawsuit Rosselli filed, one co-worker said he wasn’t a “real Jew” and another demanded that he “take that [yarmulke] off! You’re creeping me out!” Rosselli’s lawsuit seeks unspecified money damages from McKinsey & Co. for discrimination and retaliation.

The kippah has also made its way into pop culture. It’s become more common to see actors wearing a yarmulke on television shows (Jeffrey Tambor on “Arrested Development” or Jeremy Priven on “Entourage) and in the movies (Ben Stiller in “Keeping the Faith” or Owen Wilson in “Meet the Parents”). But this is just to let the audience know they are playing Jewish characters.

In a recent episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” the kippah was the punchline. Like he did as a writer on “Seinfeld,” Larry David draws on real life situations for “Curb” and shows how humorous they are. I’m sure that living in Los Angeles, Larry David has encountered middle-aged Jewish people who suddenly embrace Jewish observance. And that was precisely the situation he wrote for Bob Einstein, who plays the dentist Marty Funkhowser on the show. In the “Palestinian Chicken” episode, Larry attends a dinner party where Funkhowser, wearing a yarmulke, explains that he’s recently undergone a spiritual awakening following his divorce and mid-life crisis. He has been meeting with a female rabbi each night who has influenced him to become more religious (saying the blessings before meals, wearing a kippah and even considering “Koufaxing” his friends by not playing in the golf tournament on Shabbat).

In this scene (video below), Funkhowser is about to enter a Palestinian chicken restaurant wearing his large velvet yarmulke, but Larry David and Jeff Garlin (playing Jeff Greene) won’t allow it.

I started wearing a yarmulke when I was four-years-old at my synagogue-based pre-school, and then continued to wear it at my Jewish day school in Detroit and whenever I was in a synagogue. During my freshman year of college I decided to wear a yarmulke all the time. At first I probably wore it as a sign of Jewish solidarity and then later for more religious reasons. Today, I cynically joke that I wear it simply to cover my bald spot, although truth be told it probably has protected my head from getting sunburned every now and then.

Leo Rosten claims that the word “yarmulke” comes from the Tatar word for skullcap. However, I think it’s more likely from the Aramaic “yira malka” meaning “awe of the king” as a sign of respect to God. Whatever one’s reason for wearing a yarmulke, they deserve to be treated with respect. Whether you’re an Italian New Yorker experimenting with many religions or a spiritually renewed Jewish dentist going to eat some Middle Eastern chicken.

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