Congregation Beit Kodesh

It’s not uncommon for a rabbi to write a eulogy for a human being, but writing a eulogy for a synagogue is fortunately not very common. Nevertheless, I’d like to express my sincere sadness that a local Conservative congregation is closing its doors today.

Yesterday marked the final Shabbat for Congregation Beit Kodesh, a small Conservative synagogue in Livonia, Michigan that began in 1958. As if this wasn’t already a sad weekend for the families of Congregation Beit Kodesh, news has circulated today that Cantor David Gutman, their beloved cantor emeritus has passed away. For several years after Beit Kodesh had retained its final full-time rabbi, Cantor Gutman held the congregation together and led all prayer services including the High Holidays.

At the end of the summer in 2005 while I was working as the associate director at the University of Michigan Hillel Foundation in Ann Arbor, I was contacted by the leaders of Beit Kodesh who invited me to meet with them in the synagogue’s library. The small group of long-time members explained the history of the congregation to me and their concern that with dwindling membership numbers they wouldn’t be able to keep their doors open much longer. Their building was owned by the Jewish Foundation of Metropolitan Detroit and they ran a small Sunday school program. They asked me if I would be willing to be their rabbinic adviser, serving as a consultant when questions came up, helping to raise some much needed funding in the community, and also providing direction to the Sunday School director. I wasn’t about to let a synagogue go out of business if I could help and so I agreed.

For the next three years (in my spare time) I wrote newsletter articles for the synagogue bulletin, taught the Sunday School families at holiday events, and helped promote the congregation in the community. The highlights during that time were a front-page story in the Detroit Jewish News and the renovation of the congregation’s sanctuary. In December 2008 I sent out a letter to my own contacts in the community explaining that this small congregation was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, but would soon have to close its doors because of financial reasons. Close to $10,000 trickled in to help Beit Kodesh stay alive for a little longer.

Finally, this month the congregation’s leaders recognized it was time to close. As I told the Detroit Jewish News, “The fact that this small congregation managed to keep its doors open as long as it did is a success story. That they eked out another five years makes them ‘The Little Shul that Could.'”

These days it’s not unusual for small Conservative synagogues to either close or merge with other congregations. The national trend is a response to the growth of Conservative synagogues during the expansion years and today’s difficult economic conditions. For a dwindling Conservative Jewish population here in Metro Detroit, there are too many congregations and they can’t support themselves as their membership rolls decline. The Beit Kodesh leadership should be proud of themselves for sticking around as long as they did in an area without a lot of Jewish people from which to draw.

The men and women of Congregation Beit Kodesh of Livonia, Michigan should be commended for their hard work in maintaining a Jewish presence in an area of Metro Detroit that hasn’t had a large Jewish population for many decades. It is sad whenever a synagogue closes, but Am Yisrael Chai… the Jewish people endures.

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

TSA Issued Lulav Alert for Sukkot This Year

On this blog I’ve written about past incidents on airplanes concerning presumed breaches of airline security when Jewish passengers began to put on tefillin (black leather straps and black boxes known as phylacteries). Like many others I criticized the airlines and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) for not educating flight crews that these were necessary parts of Jewish prayer garb and therefore permissible on planes and in airports.

Therefore, I feel it is important to now praise the TSA for its recent notification to all employees concerning the prayer accoutrements that might have been seen in airports and on airplanes during the Sukkot holiday. The TSA’s alert stated that “Observant Jewish travelers may carry four plants – a palm branch, myrtle twigs, willow twigs, and a citron – in airports and through security checkpoints. These plants are religious articles and may be carried either separately or as a bundle. Jewish travelers may be observed in prayer, shaking the bundle of plants in six directions.”

It concluded that “TSA’s screening procedures do not prohibit the carrying of such agricultural items through the airport or security checkpoints, or on airplanes. These plants are not on TSA’s Prohibited Items List. As always, TSA is committed to treating all passengers, including passengers who may be observing Sukkot, with respect and dignity during the screening process.”

Very nice. I hope the TSA remembers to issue this directive in future years as well. So, it seems that Jewish travelers are now free to carry and shake their lulavs through airports and in airplanes (not during takeoff and landing please) without fear of being interrogated, breaching security measures, or being responsible for an emergency landing.

As for bringing your kid’s plastic sword on board an airplane during Purim… don’t push it!

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

Did Oprah Go to the Mikveh for Her New Show?

What has Oprah Winfrey been doing since ending her long-running afternoon talk show last May? If your only news source was JTA.org (the Jewish world’s version of the AP), you might think that she has embraced Judaism on the level of Madonna or Demi Moore.

A misleading title grabbed many people’s attention this week when the JTA published a news brief with the bold header stating “Oprah visits mikvah for new show.” My colleague in Israel, Rabbi Andy Sacks, re-posted the news brief on Facebook and wondered allowed: “Now I have heard of going to Mikveh for Taharaat Mishpacha (family purity), before Haggim or Shabbat, for dishes, conversion, etc. But this is a new one on me.”

Well, apparently Oprah did not embrace the Jewish ritual of immersion in a mikveh before launching her new show (that would have made more headlines I’m sure), but she did visit with two Chasidic Jewish families for an upcoming episode and toured a mikveh. The new series called “Oprah’s Next Chapter” will premiere in January on her OWN network.

Writing on the Forward’s Shmooze blog, Renee Ghert-Zand explained that Oprah stopped by Congregation B’nai Avraham’s new state-of-the art ritual bath while scouting locations to film segments for her new show. “The Shmooze is guessing that the visit to the synagogue’s new, has something to do with Winfrey’s plans to touch upon the halachic concept of ‘family purity’ and the related spiritual nature of immersion in ‘living waters.’ While a crowd of neighborhood people gathered around to get a glimpse of the highly influential mega-celebrity, mikveh lady Bronya Shaffer admitted to knowing virtually nothing about her or her work.”

If the mikveh ends up being showcased on Oprah’s new television show, the Jewish ritual of becoming purified after mikveh immersion at the end of a woman’s menstrual cycle could take off on a large scale. Just look at what effect Oprah had on book clubs!

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

Gilad Shalit’s First Ten Days of Freedom

I’ve been paying close attention to Gilad Shalit’s first days of freedom from captivity. The debate of whether the prisoner swap was the right choice rages on throughout Israel and beyond, but I’ve become more interested in how he adapts to freedom and how he responds to his new status as a celebrity.

Perhaps what is most notable has been how the Israeli media has treated Gilad and the Shalit family since his release last Tuesday. In general, the news media has respected a 10-day moratorium on intrusion in the town where the Shalit family lives. With the exception of a few photos that were released with the family’s permission of Gilad riding a bicycle and swimming at the beach, there have been no reports of paparazzi-like intrusion into his life during the past ten days. I don’t believe this could have ever happened here in the United States. The American media and paparazzi would have staked out his home 24-7 to get the best photograph of Gilad re-adjusting to freedom in the privacy of his home. Kudos to the Israeli media for being so respectful of this 10-day period.

This video of Gilad Shalit riding his bicycle by his home in Mitzpe Hila was released with permission of the Shalit family:

GILAD’S UGLY SHIRT
I instinctively knew that it wouldn’t take long until humor became part of the Gilad Shalit story. The first real example of this is the now famous “Ugly Hamas Shirt” that Gilad wore when he was released. ynet News first reported that “The Shalit Shirt” has quickly become a fashion trend in Gaza. “The first image of Gilad Shalit out of Gaza has captured the attention of many in Israel and around the world. Shalit was led by Hamas men wearing civilian clothing including a plaid shirt. But while most focused on his gaunt frame, it appears many Palestinians were more interested in his outfit, which became an immediate trend in Gaza.” Stores in the Gaza Strip are selling “The Shalit Shirt” in a wide range of colors for 60 Shekels or about $16.50. There are already several Gaza-based Facebook groups about Gilad’s ugly shirt.

BIBI’S FOREST GUMP MOMENT
It’s unusual for a prime minister to crave the spotlight and sneak into photos because, well, they’re already the leader of the nation and always in the spotlight. However, it really seemed like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was doing just that during the reunion of Gilad Shalit and his father. It didn’t take long for the Israeli news media and bloggers worldwide to recognize that Bibi was trying to get his face into the iconic photos during Gilad’s release.

This act of hubris was immediately labeled “Bibi Forest Gump” after the Tom Hanks movie in which Forest Gump was seen in every iconic photo of American history. And then the Bibi Bombs began. People began Photoshopping Bibi’s face into iconic photos like the Begin-Sadat peace handshake, the signing of Israeli independence, Moshe Dayan walking in reunified Jerusalem in 1967, and Saddam Hussein’s hanging. Some even added Bibi to classic movie scenes from such films as Pulp Fiction and Cassablanca.

At least Netanyahu had fun with it when, yesterday, he uploaded his own “Bibi Bomb” to his Facebook page. It’s a photo of him addressing the U.N. with a superimposed photo of his face and a speech bubble from his smiling mouth with the text, “Doogri, you made me laugh.” An explanation of Bibi’s photo on Jewlicious says, “The word ‘Doogri’ means ‘honestly’, or ‘straightforward’… Not only did Netanyahu’s own version of the ‘Bibi Bomb’ play on the images circulating online, but it also expressed self-humor at his use of the word ‘doogri’ in his UN speech [when he addressed PA Leader Mahmoud Abbas saying] ‘Let’s talk ‘doogri’. That means straightforward, I’ll tell you my needs and concerns.”

DESTINY OR COINCIDENCE?
There are several notable coincidences with the Shalit release. The haftorah (selection from the Prophets) that was read this past Shabbat morning (Shabbat Bereshit) from the Book of Isaiah includes such lines as: “I have called you to be righteous. I took you by the hand and kept you. I made you into a covenant for the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring the prisoners out of the dungeon, and those who sit in darkness out of prison” (Isaiah 42:6-7) and “Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you, I will give men in exchange for you, and people in exchange for your life” (Isaiah 43:4).

Samuel Freedman, writing in the NY Times, referenced the story of Sodom (in next week’s Torah portion) in his beautiful op-ed about pidyon shvuyim (redeeming the captives). He wrote, “The timing of this Torah reading is an absolute coincidence, an unplanned synchronicity between the religious calendar and breaking news. Yet the passage also offers an essential explanation, one almost entirely ignored in coverage of the Shalit deal, for Israel’s anguished decision to pay a ransom in the form of more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners, including the perpetrators of terrorist attacks on civilians. The story of Abraham saving Lot represents the earliest of a series of examples of the concept of ‘pidyon shvuyim’ — redeeming the captives, invariably at a cost — in Jewish Scripture, rabbinic commentaries and legal codes. That concept, absorbed into the secular culture of the Israeli state and the Zionist movement, helped validate the steep, indeed controversial, price of Sergeant Shalit’s liberation.”


SHALIT FAMILY’S TENT REMOVED
One of the most emotional moments for Israelis living in Jerusalem was seeing the empty space outside the Prime Minister’s residence where the Shalit family’s protest tent stood for several years. The tent had served as a sign of Shalit’s captivity and a place where tourist groups would visit with the family. The tent was taken down and carted away earlier this week as Israeli President Shimon Peres visited with Gilad at the Shalit family home in the northern Israeli town of Mitzpe Hila.

Debate will continue about whether this was good or bad for Israel. Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni, head of the Kadima Party, has now spoken out against the prisoner swap that brought Shalit home, saying it has weakened Israel and strengthened Hamas. Every time there’s an attempted terror strike or bombing, critics will point to the release of the prisoners. However, even the release of one Hamas terrorist in exchange for Gilad Shalit could lead to a future incident.

It’s hard to put a price on Gilad’s freedom. However, watching him ride his bike outside his home and knowing he has visited the beach with his family and played ping pong make it feel worthwhile. Hopefully, Israel’s security fence will do its job in keeping the released prisoners and other potential terrorists outside of Israel. It might be unrealistic, but I’d like to believe that the Shin Bet (Israel’s internal security agency) didn’t release all those prisoners without first injecting some sort of tracking mechanism into their bodies. I jokingly posted on Facebook that Israeli news reported that the Shin Bet provided each of the released Palestinian prisoners with their own complimentary GPS-enabled smart phone so they could always be located.

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

Mitt Romney’s Magic Mormon Underwear and Beating Willows

I know I’m not the only rabbi who watches Bill Maher’s HBO show “Real Time” religiously. I say “religiously” with tongue-in-cheek because I’ve never missed a show and the comedian has become increasingly anti-religion in recent years. Like many religious leaders I tune in to Bill Maher’s show (actually I DVR it and watch it mid-week whenever I have a chance) for his political commentary, but I lose him when he gets into his rants about religion and God.

In yesterday’s New York Times, Maureen Dowd wrote about Bill Maher’s recent appearance at George Washington University when the creator of the documentary “Religulous” went off on an anti-Mormon rant when talking about Mitt Romney, the Mormon candidate for president. “Bill Maher bounded into territory that the news media have been gingerly tiptoeing around. Magic underwear. Baptizing dead people. Celestial marriages. Private planets. Racism. Polygamy.”

Bill Maher is a staunch atheist who attacks all religions. He was raised Roman Catholic and now refers to the Roman Catholic Church as “an international child sex ring.” But he seems to be the most critical on the Mormon faith. “By any standard, Mormonism is more ridiculous than any other religion,” Maher said. This could be because of Romney’s recent popularity in the 2012 presidential race.

I spent some time this morning thinking about Maureen Dowd’s column and Bill Maher’s vicious attack on Mormonism during his recent stand-up comedy appearance. It could very well be that Mormonism gets a lot of attention for some of its odd beliefs and rituals because it is a 19th century religion that was founded in America. Its former views on polygamy and belief in magical undergarments make for good comedy material when the creators of South Park want to write a Broadway show.

But as I marched around the small chapel in synagogue this morning holding my etrog (citron fruit) and lulav (palm fronds bounded together with myrtle and willow branches) and wearing my long multi-colored prayer shawl with four braided fringes dangling from each corner as I chanted Hosannas, I realized that it’s not fair to lampoon any religion for its silly ways. Today, Jews all over the world observe Hoshanah Rabbah when we beat willow branches as a way of ridding ourselves of our sins. A couple weeks earlier on Rosh Hashanah we threw bread crumbs into moving streams of water. Sound weird? It is. But it’s deeply rooted in religious tradition making it an accepted ritual. All religions have these odd customs that appear strange to an outsider.

If temple-going Mormons choose to wear special undergarments because they believe it sets them apart from the world and signifies a covenant between them and God, then great. One person’s special religious underwear is another’s yarmulke or burqa or gold cross around the neck. The Mormon underwear is sacred to the wearer for what it represents, but silly to the non-believer because it is rooted in a religious belief not their own.

I may not like when Mormon’s posthumously baptize deceased Jews (the other focus of Maureen Dowd’s editorial and Bill Maher’s attack), but who am I to laugh at their sacred rituals and religious garb. I find Bill Maher to be a funny comedian, but I wish he’d give up on his unrelenting religious scrutiny. He’s certainly entitled to his opinions about matters of faith and theology, but his aggressiveness has become offensive.

Mitt Romney will continue wearing his special underpants. I’ll continue wearing a yarmulke and waving the lulav. And Bill Maher will continue his crusade against the religious groups in our country. But I hope he remembers that he’s a comedian and gets paid to be funny, not disrespectful.

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

Robert Downey Jr. Appeals For Mel Gibson’s Forgiveness

As anyone who was paying attention during the recent Yom Kippur services will tell you, one must seek repentance on their own. In Judaism, there are three ways to atone for sins: asking for forgiveness, praying, and giving charity. Nowhere in Jewish law does it say that a friend can ask for forgiveness on your behalf.
That’s precisely what actor Robert Downey Jr. attempted to do on Friday during the American Cinematheque Awards Friday in Los Angeles. Downey Jr. urged the Hollywood community to forgive Gibson for his recent troubles, which include anti-Semitic rants, racial tirades, and spousal abuse.

At the annual award ceremony occurring exactly one week after Yom Kippur, Downey Jr. (whose father is half-Jewish) paraphrased the New Testament when he said to the audience that “unless you are without sin…you should forgive him and let him work.” The two actors appeared in the 1990 movie “Air America” together. Downey continued, “I urge you to forgive my friend his trespasses. Allow him to pursue this art without shame.”

At least one rabbi has spoken out against Downey Jr.’s attempts to gain forgiveness from his Hollywood colleague. The Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Rabbi Marvin Hier, said that only Mel Gibson can seek and receive forgiveness for his sins. “The sins between man and his fellow man can only be forgiven if the person who committed the sin asks for forgiveness from those whom he shamed and insulted and caused harm to,” Hier said Monday.

Hier even mentioned that Mel Gibson’s plans to make a movie about Judah Maccabee won’t help his cause either. “”You can’t ask forgiveness indirectly through a movie,” Hier said. “You can’t do it by saying, ‘Look at the part that I have. I’m producing a film about a Jew.’”

In September, the Anti-Defamation League has asked Warner Brothers to remove Gibson from the Judah Maccabee film. Abraham Foxman of the ADL released a statement in September saying, “We would have hoped that Warner Bros. could have found someone better than Mel Gibson to direct or perhaps even star in a film on the life of the Jewish historical icon Judah Maccabee. As a hero of the Jewish people and a universal hero in the struggle for religious liberty, Judah Maccabee deserves better. It would be a travesty to have the story of the Maccabees told by one who has no respect and sensitivity for other people’s religious views.”

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

Gilad Shalit Home

Aside from writing about the impact the announcement of the Gilad Shalit-Palestinian prisoners exchange deal had on Twitter last week for the Jewish Techs blog, I haven’t written much about this developing story. There are two reasons for this. First, I feel as though it’s all been said. Second, it’s a very complex moral dilemma.

I posted a simple status update on Facebook this morning, stating “Extremely happy that Gilad Shalit is home in Israel. A captive has been redeemed.” One comment to my post summed up the moral dilemma in a concise way: “It is wonderful that Gilad has been released…but at what cost? Do you think that the 400 murderers/terrorists that have been released will lead honest productive lives? And the 600 more to come in 2 months?”

The deal is obviously lopsided because it is 1,027 Palestinian prisoners (many of whom are terrorists and convicted murderers) in exchange for one Israeli soldier who has been held captive for over five years without even access to the Red Cross. Having these prisoners freed and back on the streets should be of great concern to Israel’s security. It also sends the message to Hamas and other terrorist groups that Israel will free prisoners in exchange for captives.

However, it also sends a strong message to Israelis that the Israeli government will do whatever it takes to bring its captive soldiers home. If Gilad Shalit were my son, it wouldn’t matter how many hundreds of prisoners it took to bring him back into my arms. And that’s really why this moral dilemma isn’t a dilemma after all. We just have to put our own children in Gilad Shalit’s shoes and then ask the question.

I remember my high school years in United Synagogue Youth (USY) petitioning the U.S. government to assist in the redeeming of the captive soldiers Ron Arad, Zachary Baumel, Yehuda Katz, and Zvi Feldman. And in more recent years we prayed for the release of other captives as well. So, the video footage of Gilad Shalit’s return to Israel today is cause for celebration. It is a beautiful reunion and one that Gilad’s parents truly deserve after their tireless efforts of the past five plus years.

As we celebrate the release of Gilad Shalit and the fulfillment of the commandment of pidyon sh’vuyim (the redemption of captives) in the middle of the Sukkot festival, we must also pray that Israel is able to protect itself from any terrorism caused by the prisoners it has agreed to release in this deal. At this time of great joy, we must also remember Lt. Hanan Barak and Staff-Sgt. Pavel Slutzker, the two young men who were killed in the same cross-border raid from Gaza into Israel that resulted in the taking of Gilad Shalit. May their memories be for blessings.

For more on the question of the price at which Israel should redeem its captives, see my colleague Rabbi Barry Leff’s blog post.

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

Ivanka Trump’s "Flowers" Is Really a Lulav

There were two funny things about the photos of Ivanka Trump (The Donald’s daughter) and her husband Jared Kushner taken in New York this past week.

First is the fact that the well-to-do couple wouldn’t be using a fancy etrog holder. As Kushner was pushing their baby daughter Arabella Rose on the second day of Sukkot, he was also carrying a lulav and etrog. One would think that Donald Trump’s daughter and son-in-law would have a nice silver etrog carrying case, but it appears that the Kushner-Trump couple is sporting the simple cardboard box etrog carrying case along with the plastic bag the lulav comes in.

The second funny thing is that the Daily Mail first published this photo over the weekend in its online edition explaining that “Jared, wearing a casual black jacket, pushed little Arabella Rose’s pram along the streets on their way to lunch. He also held some flowers in one hand – perhaps a gift for his wife.” I suppose you could combine a palm branch with some myrtle and willow branches to form a bouquet of sorts, but I don’t think it’s a popular gift for ones wife.

There was no word on where the couple was headed for yuntif lunch or if they had their own sukkah outside of their Manhattan home.

Trump, the billionaire heiress and model, and Kushner were married by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, who also worked with Trump through her yearlong conversion to Judaism. Kushner is the publisher of the New York Observer.

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

The Twittering of Gilad Shalit

Cross-posted to the Jewish Techs blog at The Jewish Week

Ynet News is reporting that the Israeli prime minister’s emissary to the negotiations for a prisoner exchange deal with Hamas to return the captive Gilad Shalit said “it’s not over yet. The deal reached is pretty complicated, but the most difficult part is behind us.” The former Mossad agent turned Gilad Shalit negotiator, David Meidan, added that he plans to travel to Egypt soon, together with the negotiation team, to plan Gilad Shalit’s return to Israel.

While the deal to free Shalit was orchestrated by high-level Israeli politicians, negotiators like Meidan, and world leaders, there was also an impressive social media campaign spanning the past few years to spread word of Shalit’s captivity through the micro-blogging site Twitter. The hashtag #FreeGilad has long been used on Twitter following any statement or link relating to the cause of freeing Gilad Shalit. As Adam Dickter blogged about yesterday, Gilad Shalit was trending on Twitter moments after news about the deal began to spread.

Dickter wrote at NewsFactorNews: “News of Shalit’s release and the controversial agreement spread quickly around the world, creating a stream of tweets. The hashtag #GiladShalit moved along computer screens almost as quickly today as #SteveJobs did last week, following the death of the Apple co-founder and former CEO. A few days before that, #iPhone5 topped Twitter, when Apple released a new phone that turned out to be the iPhone 4S, not an iPhone 5, as expected.”

In the NewsFactorNews post, Dickter quoted me about the early use of Twitter to promote the Free Gilad Movement:

Rabbi Jason Miller, who writes extensively about the intersection of Jewish themes and technology, said he learned about the deal Tuesday from a New York Times Breaking News alert, and quickly Tweeted it to his 2,357 followers. It was, in a way, coming full circle, as social media have been used extensively to raise awareness of Shalit’s plight. “The hashtag #FreeGilad is one that I have been using for at least three years now,” said Miller. “In fact, it was one of the first hashtags I ever used on Twitter. I’ve also been asked by leaders of the ‘Free Gilad’ movement if I would tweet certain statements at certain times of the year, on the anniversary of his captivity.” “It’s not just news for Israelis or Jewish people, but an international story.”

Dickter also noted that Facebook also offered an opportunity for people around the world to share their thoughts. The Free Gilad Shalit group, which has 107,112 members.

No doubt that the moment Gilad Shalit is back home safe and sound, he’ll be trending in the Twittersphere once again.

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

Ben Stiller is Not a Patrilineal Jew

My friend and co-blogger for The Jewish Week, Julie Wiener, writes about Ben Stiller’s opening monologue on Saturday Night Live this past week. Julie’s “In the Mix” blog focuses on issues facing the intermarried.

I also tuned in to Saturday Night Live following a 25-hour fast and then watching my Detroit Tigers lose in their first game of the ALCS to the Texas Rangers. I thought it was funny that Ben Stiller opened his monologue with a Yom Kippur reference and stated that “My father’s Jewish, my mother’s Irish-Catholic, which means according to the Torah I’m not actually Jewish, but according to all mirrors I am.”

Julie used Ben Stiller’s line to argue that not all Jews would interpret the Torah as saying that he’s not Jewish. She’s correct that Reform, Reconstructionist, and — based on a recent survey — many Conservative Jews believe that one parent is enough for Jewish status. However, Ben Stiller’s mother, Anne Meara, actually converted to Judaism before giving birth to Ben. That means that Ben would be considered fully Jewish.

According to Anne Meara’s Wikipedia entry, “Meara was raised Catholic in an Irish American family, and converted to Reform Judaism six years after marrying Stiller. She has long stressed that she did not convert at Stiller’s request… She took the conversion seriously and studied the faith in such depth that her Jewish-born husband quipped, ‘Being married to Anne has made me more Jewish.'”

True, there will be many who say that Meara’s conversion was in the Reform tradition and might not have included immersion in a mikvah (ritual bath). It is, however, possible that it did include immersion and should be regarded as a kosher conversion. That would mean that Ben Stiller is not a patrilineal Jew as Julie Wiener maintains.

What is most interesting is that while Stiller (who is married to the non-Jewish Christine Taylor) should regard himself as a full member of the Jewish people because of his mother’s conversion before his birth, he used his mother’s former faith for laughs. And that is something that Anne Meara did for years in her comedy routine with Jerry Stiller.

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