Obama’s Bar Mitzvah Speech

President Barack Obama gave what even he described as a “Bar Mitzvah speech” at the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) Biennial on Friday afternoon. Love him or hate him, the President gave an impressive speech that earned him no less than 70 rounds of applause.

In the speech, he not only defended his administration’s record on Israel, but claimed that, “no U.S. administration has done more in support of Israel’s security than ours. None. Don’t let anybody else tell you otherwise. It is a fact.”

Telling the audience that his daughter Malia has been on the bar and bat mitzvah circuit, he took his daughter’s advice and gave a D’var Torah about this week’s Torah portion. Obama’s message focused on the Hebrew word “Hineini” (I Am Here) saying that like Joseph from the Torah, he is here and ready to take on challenges even if he can’t predict them all. He also dropped some other Hebrew words, but didn’t pronounce all of them well. He struggled to pronounce the term “Tikkun Olam” but fared better with other words and received a rousing ovation when he wished the audience a “Shabbat Shalom.”

Obama’s “Shabbat Shalom” came with the acknowledgement that he knew it was still a few hours before the Jewish Sabbath. He said, “Even though it is a few hours early, I’d like to wish all of you Shabbat shalom.” His former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel (or any other Jewish adviser for that matter) could have informed him that we Jews start wishing each other “Shabbat Shalom” as much as 24 hours prior to the actual Shabbat. My sense is that Obama knows this and his statement was a tongue-in-cheek reference to the criticism he received for hosting the White House Hanukkah party two weeks before the actual holiday.

Who knows if “Hineini” will replace “Hope” as Obama’s 2012 campaign slogan, but here are some Obama Hineini t-shirts and products just in case (available online).

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

Jewish Dolls for Jewish Girls

For generations Jewish girls collected and played with their Barbie Dolls. Yes, both Barbie and Ken looked quite Aryan but I don’t believe many little Jewish girls were complaining about their dolls’ non-Semitic looks. Now, all of a sudden, there is a plethora of very Jewish looking dolls on the market. I know this because I was escorted through the American Girl Place in Chicago this past August by my own little Jewish doll. She grabbed me by the hand and dragged (yes, dragged) me past dozens of dolls to show me the elaborate display of American Girl’s answer to religious pluralism. And that’s when I met Rebecca Rubin for the first time.

Rebecca Rubin is not a stereotypical Jewish girl. At least not from this century! She’s a cute little brunette growing up in New York City in 1914 (think Fievel from “American Tale” but a little girl instead of a mouse). Rebecca Rubin now lives with our family. We’ve adopted her, but she’s maintained her Rubin sir name and Lower East Side Depression-era attire.

As if Rebecca Rubin doesn’t look quintessentially Jewish enough, my daughter can beJEWel her even more until this doll has been tricked out with the Jewy-ist accoutrements imaginable. For $68 (that’s not a typo), Rebecca can enjoy a beautiful Shabbat with “The Rebecca Rubin Sabbath Set.” (For much less than $68 I can feed my family a delicious Shabbat dinner, complete with brisket and wine.) The Sabbath set is advertised as featuring “everything Rebecca’s family needs to celebrate the Sabbath: A Russian samovar and tray for heating water and serving tea, a tea canister and a ceramic teapot, two glasses, pretend hallah bread and a scalloped cloth, a pair of Sabbath candles that the women in Rebecca’s family ‘light’ before sundown, and two blue candlesticks that were a gift to Rebecca from Mr. Rossi.” Based on the price of the set, I just assumed those candlesticks from Mr. Rossi were real silver and that I wasn’t getting ripped off too badly.

The Rebecca Rubin doll sells for $100. With all of her hyper-Jewish accessories, figure the total investment will be around $18,000 (and that’s before Rebecca Rubin even starts day school).

If the Rebecca Rubin doll is too Old World Jewish for your daughter’s taste then there’s a whole crop of more modern Jewish dolls on the market. I learned this from an email I received this morning from the Jewish version of Groupon called JDeal, which is offering Gali Girls at a 37% discount today. Not only are these Jewish dolls less expensive than Rebecca Rubin, their less expensive than her candlesticks!

Advertised as “Learn and play the Jewish way! Gali Girls gives young Jewish girls an opportunity to bring positive Jewish values into their doll play, and create a connection between the contemporary Jewish girl and her heritage. While the majority of dolls in today’s market focus on fashion and makeup, Gali Girls reinforces the positive Jewish values that have kept the Jewish people alive and growing for 5000+ years.”

Based on the description, it looks like each of the Gali Girl dolls even comes with a Shabbat kit (in addition to a Jewish star bracelet for herself and her new owner, and a Hebrew/English name birth certificate). Not only that, but the Gali Girl dolls’ clothing is compatible with American Girl dolls. And if your daughter still wants her doll to have the nostalgic immigrant look of Rebecca Rubin, there are Gali Girls options like Shoshana who lives in colonial New York.

If you’re looking for something more feminist and egalitarian for your daughter than either the Rebecca Rubin American Girl doll or the collection of Gali Girl dolls, might I suggest this post-modern religious Barbie doll created by Jen Taylor Friedman, a Torah scribe (yes, a female Torah scribe!) in New York. The Tefillin Barbie Doll can be purchased on her website and comes in various options including a computer engineer Barbie Doll wearing a tallit and tefillin. A Mattel Barbie with tallit, tefillin and book from the Talmud sells for $130 and Torah scrolls are an additional $40. If your daughter doesn’t want the standard looking blonde Barbie, you can send Taylor Friedman any Barbie Doll and she will wrap her in the traditional Jewish garb.

All I can say is, “Barbie… You’ve come a long way baby!”

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

Yes, An Orthodox Rabbi Can "Do" a Commitment Ceremony

Co-written by Rabbi Jason Miller and Rabbi Menachem Creditor

Our colleague and teacher, Rabbi Steve Greenberg, is an Orthodox rabbi who will go down in history as being the first Orthodox rabbi to officiate a Jewish commitment ceremony and civil marriage for two men. In a recent article in The Jewish Week, Rabbi Greenberg explained that this ceremony which took place in Washington D.C. was not a “gay Orthodox wedding” as was sensationally reported. He wrote, “I officiated at a ceremony that celebrated the decision of two men to commit to each other in love and to do so in binding fashion before family and friends. Though it was a legal marriage according to the laws of the District of Columbia, as far as Orthodox Jewish law (halacha) is concerned, there was no kiddushin (Jewish wedding ceremony) performed.”

Rabbi Reuven Spolter responded to Rabbi Greenberg’s actions in a blog post “Why Has My Yeshiva Not Revoked Steven Greenberg’s Semichah?” We write this as a response to Rabbi Spolter.

As two Conservative rabbis who were both ordained at the same rabbinical seminary, we also regard our semicha (rabbinical ordination) as a special honor whose legitimacy must be preserved. Like Rabbi Spolter and Rabbi Bernard Revel before him, we would hope that our rabbinical seminary would take back the semicha of a colleague who grossly violated either Torah law or civil law. However, Rabbi Spolter is mistaken in his characterization of Rabbi Steve Greenberg’s writings and actions.

Rabbi Greenberg has neither violated Torah law or civil law. He has used his rabbinate to help right a wrong. In officiating at a same-sex commitment ceremony between two men, Rabbi Greenberg may not have acted in a way that fits Rabbi Spolter’s belief structure, but he also did not violated any laws. The “to’eva” (abomination) in Leviticus speaks to a sexual act. No where does it discuss a life-cycle ceremony drawing upon the language of our sacred tradition to bless a relationship between two souls.

As to Rabbi Spolter’s concern with Rabbi Greenberg using the title “Orthodox Rabbi” (or more specifically: “Modern Orthodox Rabbi”), he should know that “Orthodox Rabbi” is not a halachic (Jewish legal) term. Rabbi Spolter would be hard pressed to point to any text in the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) in which the term “Orthodox Rabbi” is used. We are certain that rabbis in Agudath Israel of American (Haredi) do not consider Chovevei Torah (Open Orthodox) musmachim (ordainees) to be legitimate “Orthodox Rabbis”. I’m sure that any graduate of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), like Rabbi Spolter and Rabbi Greenberg, wouldn’t want to be lumped together with the “Orthodox Rabbis” of Neturei Karta (anti-Zionist Haredi). These are political distinctions with religious implications, but they are not halachic categories.

Rabbi Greenberg IS an Orthodox Rabbi in the sense that he received his semicha from RIETS. The way he uses his semicha is not “vulgar,” as you put it. To the contrary. Standing under the chuppah (wedding canopy) with two men who have committed to spend their lives together, raise a family and grow old with each other in a loving way does not negate a person’s ability to call himself an “Orthodox Rabbi.” Yeshiva University or RIETS could certainly yank Rabbi Greenberg’s semicha, but it wouldn’t be for a violation of halacha. Rather, it would be for his violating a social norm that makes some Jews like Rabbi Spolter uncomfortable.

The role of Judaism has always been to raise the mundane to touch the sacred. God’s world is full of opportunities for holiness. When two Jews find each other, and are prepared to enter into covenantal relationship, there is more than enough guidance that halacha provides to frame the moment. Furthermore, it is a responsibility we each carry as rabbis to stand with our People, person by person.

We hope that Rabbi Spolter and others will read these words from Rabbi Greenberg and try to understand why this Orthodox rabbi chose to courageously do what no other Orthodox rabbi before him had done:

Last December my partner and I returned from India with our newly born daughter. During the year of planning for her birth, I began to feel that I was failing as a rabbi to give young gay people hope in a religiously coherent future. As friends and students found spouses and decided to make families, it felt increasingly wrong to provide no context for commitment and celebration. Naming our daughter in an Orthodox synagogue and celebrating her birth there sealed my resolve.

While the condemnation of many is strong, I have received the quiet encouragement (if not always agreement) of a number of my Orthodox colleagues. While I do not expect other Orthodox rabbis to perform a ceremony of this sort any time soon, I do expect that we come to earn their understanding and respect as we take the frames of halacha seriously in the constructing of our committed relationships. In my view, the ceremony was beautiful, halachically informed and religiously meaningful, and I do hope that through consideration of it, the Orthodox community (and perhaps beyond) will come to recognize the human issues at stake.

We offer our congratulations to the two men whose relationship Rabbi Greenberg has helped to make sacred in our Tradition. We also offer our highest praise to Rabbi Greenberg and pray that he will serve as a beacon of hope to those in the Orthodox gay community who never thought they could be in a committed, blessed partnership.

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

Matisyahu on Contradictions in Religious Observance

As any man with a beard, goatee or mustache will tell you, it is a transformative experience to shave it all off. Something tells me that Matisyahu felt a sense of freedom after he shaved off his iconic beard the other day. There has been a lot of discussion about Matisyahu’s transformation after he came clean [shaven] and claimed he has evolved from a Hasidic reggae star. The opinions have ranged from those who interpreted this as Matisyahu’s having left a religious lifestyle (going “off the derech“) to those who can’t figure out why this story even qualifies as “news.”

While I personally question if shaving off his iconic beard was a wise PR move, what I think is more interesting is how he has made his personal religious journey into a public narrative. His rise to super stardom occurred after he had already adopted a religious lifestyle and his break from Lubavitch a couple years ago wasn’t very well publicized so this is really the first time his observance has been discussed on such a broad scale. And now that he’s gone public with his shifts in observance, Matisyahu has (unintentionally?) brought the conversation of religious shifting and spiritual seeking into a very public sphere.

I listened to Matisyahu’s first interview since his transformative shaving experience and there was an interesting exchange toward the end. Soundcheck host John Schaefer began to ask Matisyahu a question that was sent in to the program by a listener having to do with him living some sort of a contradictory life. Matisyahu quickly cut Schaefer off and said something that I think is of utmost importance in any conversation about religious observance and spiritual seeking.

I’d like to say one thing about contradictions — I don’t mean to cut you off — but the whole thing is contradictions. And that’s what I’ve realized, is that everything has multiple sides to it, you know? We’re so quick to go, to make things black and white and to put things in their box. You know what I mean? But everything is this mixture, and that’s what this world is, is this blend of different things.

Exactly! I hope Matisyahu’s quote goes viral because it is so true. Religion is not black and white although some may claim that it is. I recently had a conversation with a young venture capitalist in Detroit who is a ba’al teshuva, meaning he adopted an observant Jewish lifestyle. As he hammered away at the contradictions of non-Orthodox Jewish religious practice (“they keep strict kosher at home, but eat vegetarian in non-kosher-certified restaurants,” “they don’t drive on Shabbat except to go to the synagogue,” etc.), I tried unsuccessfully to explain to him that these contradictions exist across the board. Human beings are inconsistent and religion (including religious law) is fluid so that it breeds inconsistency (across denominations, between communities, and in individuals).

Some observant Jews may find comfort in their own reality distortion field, but I am certain that contradictions exist in their own personal religious practice. As a colleague of mine often says, “Every Jew can find another Jew who isn’t as frum (religious) as he is and look down on him.” There really does not exist any baseline for religious observance because religion has many sides to it and is a mixture, as Matisyahu expressed. Perhaps the end of 2011 marks Matisyahu’s most meaningful religious epiphany yet. Shaving off his beard helped him open his eyes to the sea of grey that is a religiously observant life and a spiritual existence.

Beard or no beard, I’m sure that Matisyahu’s music will continue to resonate with millions. I hope his insight will as well.

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

Is Matisyahu Still Chasidic?

“All my life I’ve been waiting for… I’ve been praying for… The chance to shave off all this scraggly facial hair.”

Those aren’t the lyrics to a Matisyahu song, but they could be. Only a few hours after the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) published my story about Matisyahu’s unimpressive appearance on a reality TV cooking show, they issued a breaking news alert. As Daniel Sieradski commented in Heeb, it was the type of breaking news alert that is usually reserved for a terrorist attack. Only this was no terrorist attack. It was just Matisyahu shaving off his signature Chasidic-looking beard and transitioning from his Hasidic lifestyle as a religious Jew.

Has Matisyahu Gone “Off the Derech” by Shaving Away His Hasidic Identity?

I don’t think his decision to put his wife and mother-in-law in front of the camera with him on the “Chef Roble and Co” TV show was a very wise PR decision for Matisyahu and I think his current decision to shave the beard and drop his Chasidic identity could be the result of mismanagement.

In a blog post, Matisyahu wrote:

This morning I posted a photo of myself on Twitter. No more Chassidic reggae superstar. Sorry folks, all you get is me…no alias. When I started becoming religious 10 years ago it was a very natural and organic process. It was my choice. My journey to discover my roots and explore Jewish spirituality—not through books but through real life. At a certain point I felt the need to submit to a higher level of religiosity…to move away from my intuition and to accept an ultimate truth. I felt that in order to become a good person I needed rules—lots of them—or else I would somehow fall apart. I am reclaiming myself. Trusting my goodness and my divine mission.  

Get ready for an amazing year filled with music of rebirth. And for those concerned with my naked face, don’t worry…you haven’t seen the last of my facial hair.

I met Matisyahu for the first time at the Hillel International Staff Conference in a hotel in Connecticut back in December 2004. I remembered watching him perform on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” earlier that August. For most of the Jewish professional leaders gathered in that hotel ballroom, the show was more about a Hasidic reggae singer than it was about the music. It was a novelty. He certainly wouldn’t have gotten that gig had he not been an overtly Jewish performer.

So now the question is what does Matisyahu become without the Hasidic identity? Will he return to Matthew Miller? It sounds like he will, but that can’t be a very wise decision since his name has become his brand. But what does this mean for the Jewish community? Matthew Miller is a ba’al teshuva meaning he came to religious Judaism as an adult. Will this call the long-term devotion of other ba’alei teshuva into question? What will this mean for Matisyahu’s wife Tahlia and their children? Will they remain as Orthodox Jews, committed to the Hasidic lifestyle?

Many musicians are secular but spiritual. It looks to me as if Matthew Miller doesn’t realize that his cache is in his Hasidic identity more than in his music. He will quickly become just another performer. Matisyahu will certainly not be the first frum (religious) Jew to “go off the derech” (journey from a religious life to a secular one), but he might be the most famous to so this publicly.

As Sieradski writes in Heeb, “One can’t but help but wonder if this is a bellwether for the rest of the ba’al teshuvah community. Few people have benefitted so richly from their Orthodox identity than Matisyahu, whose iconic hasidically-garbed appearance was oft stated to have had more to do with his rise to stardom than his talent alone. If Miller, whose feverish religiosity inspired so many others on the road to Jewish observance, couldn’t hack it as a frum yid, how can others be expected to maintain the illusion when the benefits are far less tangible?

I’m hoping Matisyah (or Matthew Miller) will find future success in his endeavors, but I’m pessimistic that his music alone will keep him at the top of the charts. He got famous by being “that Hasidic reggae singer,” but he will likely fade from fame as “that Hasidic reggae singer who shaved his beard and disappeared into secular life.”

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

Jerry Sandusky, Mel Brooks & Avi Dichter

When I met Israeli politician Avi Dichter at an AIPAC event in Michigan a year ago I knew he looked like an actor, but I couldn’t tell if he bore a closer resemblance to Mel Brooks or Richard Dreyfuss.

I’m sure the sad story of disgraced football coach Jerry Sandusky will be made into a movie

Rick Perry Video Uses Aaron Copland Music

My video parody of Rick Perry’s “Strong” campaign ad on YouTube has been attracting a lot of attention with about 4,500 likes and under 100 dislikes, including close to 650 comments. It has been featured in USA Today, Daily Kos, Jewish Journal, JTA, Forward, Jewcy, and Spiegel Online (German).

There have been many video parodies of Rick Perry’s campaign ad turning it into a meme on the Web. But I’ve noticed that the best way to mock Rick Perry and his homophobic, “war on religion”-paranoid message is to do nothing. The video mocks itself.

When I was choosing the background music for my video parody with the video’s editor Adam Luger we tried to come as close as possible to the background music in the original Rick Perry commercial. However, we were unable to determine who composed the music. Well, it now appears that the joke’s on Rick Perry because that background music was inspired by none other than Aaron Copland. Jewish? Check! Gay? Flaming! Member of the Communist Party? You betcha!

Paul Schied writing in the Harvard Political Review first reported that the music heard in the background of Rick Perry’s “Strong” ad was composed by Aaron Copland, a prominent composer who was Jewish, outwardly gay, and a member of the Communist Party. It turns out that Schied’s music majoring roommate detected the Copland composed music. It turns out that the music was inspired by Aaron Copland, but is actually a “cheap knock-off of sorts of Copland’s Appalachian Spring according to The New Yorker music critic Alex Ross.”

The background music in Rick Perry’s ad was inspired  by composer Aaron  Copland who was gay.

So, for those of you keeping score at home, Rick Perry’s campaign ad (which was originally created for the Iowa television market but quickly went viral on YouTube) has him proclaiming that it’s wrong for gays to serve openly in the military when kids can’t celebrate Christmas in school, but has him wearing a jacket that looks like the one worn by Heath Ledger in the gay romance movie “Brokeback Mountain” and features background music inspired by a gay, Jewish composer. You just can’t make this stuff up!

Here’s my video response:

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

Chef Roble Goes Kosher for Matisyahu

I had never heard of the reality TV cooking show “Chef Roble and Co” when a friend texted me tonight and ordered me to turn on the Bravo channel. As my wife flipped through 400 cable channels trying to find the Bravo channel for the first time I quickly did a Web search to figure out why my friend felt it was so urgent that I tune in.

What I found was Chef Roble trying to prepare a meal for the Hasidic singer Matisyahu and a few dozen of his guests before he went away for several months on tour this past summer. The name of the episode was “Babysitter in the Kitchen,” which referred to the mashgiach (kosher supervisor) from OK Kosher (a certification agency).

Matisyahu’s tweet promoting his appearance on Chef Roble and Co (Bravo)

The famous chef (I guess he’s famous because he has his own cooking show, but I had never heard of him) not only had to prepare strictly kosher meals for Matisyahu and his guests but they also had to be Thai and Vegan. Oh, and he had to please Matisyahu’s whiny mother-in-law and kvetchy wife Tahlia Miller (who doesn’t appear to be as strictly Vegan as her husband).

I’m guessing that this is the first time on national TV that the intricacies of hashgacha (kosher supervision) were made known in such detail. The OK Kosher mashgiach told the chef that only the mashgiach could light the stoves, but once the pilot light was lit the chef could adjust the flame. However, the mashgiach never provided a reason for this (it’s because of bishul akum — the prohibition on having a non-Jew cook food for Jews). They also showed the mashgiach painstakingly checking each mint leaf for bugs. There were definitely some uncomfortable events that occurred as the catering crew prepared for the sit-down, plated dinner. When they opened the boxes with the kosher plates, they found that each plate was either chipped or dirty (Chef Roble claimed he found human hair on some of the plates, exclaiming “There was DNA on those plates.”). Nice!


The chef and his team (including sub-contracted servers who had to be dressed modestly) pulled off the dinner for Matisyahu and his guests. Everyone seemed pleased with the Vegan Thai food that was prepared with the babysitter mashgiach in the kitchen. Everyone that is except for Matisyahu’s wife who claimed there wasn’t enough sauce. The meal ended with a food/wine fight, Matisyahu throwing a glass of water into his mother-in-law’s face, and the event planner being hoisted in a chair. Bottom line: I don’t think Matisyahu, his family, or mashgichim (kosher supervisors) are very well represented in this reality TV episode. I think he would have been better off turning down Bravo’s offer to film this event and just pay the famous chef to cater it instead. Here’s the promo video:


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

Response to Rick Perry’s Campaign Ad

Like many millions of people, when I watched Texas Governor Rick Perry’s “Strong” Campaign ad for the first time on YouTube I was deeply troubled. “I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a Christian,” Perry begins. “But you don’t need to be in the pew every Sunday to know there’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.”

My first thought was of the gay men and women currently serving in uniform who are risking their lives in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere around the globe to protect our country. I immediately decided to film a parody of Rick Perry’s video. I wanted it to be a spoof of his video in order to show the ridiculousness of his message.

The response to my video has been great so far. After only 15 hours there have been about 800 likes and only 10 dislikes with almost 5,000 views. The most meaningful aspect has been the comments on the YouTube video. One viewer wrote, “i’m an atheist but i would sure would vote for rabbi jason over any of the idiots that are postulating themselves if i could.” Another wrote, “As a non religious person raised as a christian in the church, i strongly support this, I have friends of all religions and believe our differences is what makes this country great! THANK YOU FOR YOUR EDUCATED WELL THOUGHT OUT OPINION.”

I have been pleasantly surprised that there have not been more negative, hate-filled comments in response to my video. I will not censor any comments because I believe it’s important that everyone sees the hate that exists in some people’s hearts and the ignorance that exists in their minds. Here’s a comment that made me feel very good this morning: “Bless you, Rabbi! Thanks for retaliating in such an intelligent, focused, and humorous video! Every time I’m reminded that there are people like you in this country, I have hope for it again… Hope you and your family have a bright and beautiful Hannukah! Cheers! -from Agnostic, Gay, Christopher :)”

Here is the video, which was filmed and edited by Adam Luger:


Text:
I’m not ashamed to say that I’m a Jew — Heck, I’m even a Rabbi… but you don’t need to be in shul on every Shabbos to know there’s something wrong in our country when gays can serve openly in the military and yet they still can’t get married legally in most U.S. States.

Our Jewish kids in public school have to watch as their peers celebrate Christmas — a holiday they don’t observe. They have to sit quietly as the Christian students pray in school. That just seems uncomfortable.

As President, I will fight to end this crazy talk that there’s a war on religion. And I will fight anyone who discriminates against others simply because of their sexual orientation.

Intelligence made America strong. It can make her strong again.

I’m Rabbi Jason Miller and I think it’s too cold to film a video outside in Michigan in the winter. Who approved this?

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

Detroit Brothers Produce Over 500 Mobile Apps

Originally published in The Detroit Jewish News

There’s An App For That!
Local brothers’ jacAPPS business rolls out more than 500 mobile apps.

In what could have easily been mistaken for a scene from HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, two brothers sit at a conference room table in Southfield bouncing ideas off each other for mobile applications that could improve Jewish life.

A small collection of iPhones and iPads sits on the table, as one brother remarks that it would be cool if they created an app that would replay the rabbi’s sermon just in case you dozed off in the middle. The other brother suggests they create an app that allows congregants to choose High Holiday seats by selecting the seats before the holiday and making a donation right from their cell phone. They share a brotherly laugh as they reflect on one brother’s seat-saving tradition in which he drapes tallits (prayer shawls) over the rows of seats for the entire family.

With one look these brothers seem to intuit that they’ve found a need for another app. This look is one that has no doubt been flashed from one brother to the other more than 500 times over the past few years. When there’s a need for something to be available on a mobile phone, Fred and Paul Jacobs will be there to come up with the way to do it.

The brothers launched jacAPPS (pronounced Jake-Apps; a riff on their last name) three years ago when they noticed a need for mobile applications in the radio industry. “Back in the fall of 2008 with the economy facing unprecedented challenges, few would have expected a company like ours to emerge as the leading app developer for radio,” company president Fred Jacobs, 60, of Bloomfield Hills explained.

The brothers’ entrée into the mobile apps market wasn’t by accident. Fred, the oldest of three brothers (Bill isn’t involved in the apps company), formed Jacobs Media in 1983 and went on to create the Classic Rock format while sitting at his kitchen table. Today, the company is the nation’s largest radio consulting firm specializing in rock formats. Each year, Jacobs Media uses Techsurveys to track the leading-edge technology trends in their industry, and in 2008 those surveys pointed the way to the smart phone revolution and the explosion of mobile apps. jacAPPS hasn’t stopped creating apps since and today it is one of the top developers in Michigan.

Having consulted rock and indie radio stations since the 1980s, the Jacobs brothers always try to figure out what radio listeners are doing and how they’re using technology. Their job is to help radio stations better understand the listeners. They knew that radio had lost much of its portability as people were choosing to listen to an iPod or MP3 player in place of a Sony Walkman or portable boom box. In recent years, when they realized that people were beginning to stream their favorite radio stations on mobile devices, they recognized that radio would once again be portable and they leapt into action. Rather than allow their clients to have their music streamed along with other radio stations’ music, they decided it was better to have single station apps. Apple’s AppStore had only been open for 90 days when they got to work on their first mobile app.

“Individual station brands deserved their own mobile apps,” wrote Fred Jacobs on the jacAPPS blog. “Surprisingly, some of radio’s biggest broadcasters took a different direction, building their own ‘umbrella apps’ that featured hundreds of their stations. You cannot underestimate the success of iHeartRadio or CBS’s Radio.com — apps that aggregate hundreds of radio stations under a big tent. Many smart phone owners swear by these apps, allowing them the ability to hear ‘favorite’ stations, while providing a diversity of choice. But our contention was that consumers are less focused on corporate brands than they are on hometown stations in their markets — or in cities where they once lived or visited. And for individual stations, the app experience has been powerful.”

After its incorporation, jacAPPS designed and released 20 apps in six months and began hiring young talent to grow the business. They continuously asked themselves what a mobile application can do that the radio station’s website cannot do.

They already had the listening ears of radio station executives across the country who were ready to implement whatever Fred and Paul Jacobs were recommending. When they told these radio stations that there existed a strategic need for customized mobile apps, the radio stations got in line and put in their orders.
The first app jacAPPS created was for WRIF, a Detroit based Rock radio station. “They did a great job and allowed us to be one of the first radio companies to provide iPhone apps to our listeners and they helped us transform our business from strictly broadcast to a multiplatform media company,” said Tom Bender, senior vice president and general manager of Greater Media Interactive, owner of local stations WRIF, WCSX and WMGC.

“We are now in the development of version 3.0 of our station apps for both iPhone and Android phones,” Bender added. “We have brainstormed for additional new functions that would be of high user interest, and jacAPPS was invaluable in that process. It’s easy to get enthused by a shiny new piece of technology, but to have the research and user input to know how often and exactly how it’s going to be used make the difference. That, more than flashy graphics or slick colors, is the real creative input for me.”

The watershed moment for jacAPPS was when Christian Radio signed on. “We were recognized early on by iconic brands like K-Love and Air1, which opened up the Christian Broadcasting world to us,” explained company vice president and general manager Paul Jacobs, 57, of Farmington Hills. “Car Talk, C-SPAN radio, and other great non-commercial radio franchises have added to our portfolio.”

jacAPPS has been grateful for the many Christian radio stations that have ordered customized mobile apps, but they are especially proud of some of the Jewish-themed apps their company has created such as Jewish Rock Radio, launched by Jewish recording artist Rick Recht. “We launched Jewish Rock Radio with the goal of creating the first truly high-caliber, 24/7 international Jewish rock radio station – a critical communication channel for the Jewish world based on the business models, the aesthetics, and ‘best pratices’ of the very best online radio stations offered in the Christian and secular worlds,” Recht, the executive director of Jewish Rock Radio explained. “When we dug deeper to find the developer behind some of the stations we wished to emulate, we found JacApps. With JacApps, we had found a developer who could not only create apps that were on caliber with some of our favorite Christian stations, but literally had created some of those apps!”

The Jacobs brothers believe strongly that radio stations were originally questioning if their music should be available on a stream, but they have taken it to the next level as their clients realize that they must have an app. They see themselves as improving the radio experience in the 21st century by helping radio stations create something that will generate revenue, enchant their audience and help them better distribute their content in the digital age.

While radio was their springboard into the mobile application industry, jacAPPS now designs and builds apps for a wide array of business categories and industries including festivals, events and sports brands. The Southfield-based company, which was spun off from Jacobs Media this summer, has created apps for the Spartan Sports Network, Ann Arbor Art Fairs, the Detroit International Jazz Festival and the Taste of Atlanta. The company is looking forward to creating apps for political candidates as the upcoming election approaches.

One difficulty for jacAPPS has been the lack of compatibility across platforms. They have had to create separate custom apps for their clients on Apple devices, as well as on the Android and Blackberry platforms.
Since its launch in 2008, jacAPPS has created more than 500 apps for hundreds of clients. And with more than 11 million downloads, they can likely claim the most amount of downloads for any app company in Michigan (Crains Detroit wrote, “The company is by far the leading app developer in metro Detroit.”). What has set them apart is their ability to build a company’s entire mobile strategy from the concept of the app to its design through development and marketing. In today’s portable world, Fred and Paul Jacobs have figured out how to elevate their clients’ brands and to successfully integrate that into the dynamic mobile space.

The jacAPPS team is made up of a handful of young, talented employees who are several decades the Jacobs brothers’ junior. They all seem to understand that mobile applications are the next step in the technology revolution. Bryan Steckler, operations manager, said, “We are now where we were with websites in the 90s. Big brands have mobile apps, and now every business is realizing they need an app.”

The two brothers enjoy working together in the same business. Pointing to his younger brother, Fred said, “If you can’t trust this guy, who could you trust?”

They are both quick to acknowledge that they would not be as close if they weren’t in business together. “It’s a family business and that leads to group collaboration,” Steckler said. “The fact that they’re brothers is what makes the company what it is. And that transfers to our clients as well.”

“We’ve been fortunate to build a team of smart, young talented people here in Southeast Michigan. Our apps are truly ‘exported from Detroit,’ and showcase the resurgence of the technology industry in an area more commonly recognized for its heavy industry,” Fred Jacobs remarked.

The future for jacAPPS is bright as the mobile app market continues to surge. “We see nothing but growth and expansion ahead. By blending strategy, research, and keeping a laser focus on the consumer experience, our expectation is that jacAPPS will become a leader in full-service mobile resource for brands of all types that recognize the mobile future,” said Fred.

The company has had its share of proud moments as it became one of the top mobile app developers. jacAPPS has had the top app in the App Store in New Zealand; its NPR Radio app was featured on the front page of the U.S. App Store; and its app for Pulse 88.7 in New York was featured on a billboard for Apple.

jacAPPS has developed a number of mobile apps for nonprofit companies at either no cost or discounted rates. The team has also taken pride in having the opportunity to work with interesting people. Among its clients is a Native American Council made up of several tribes. jacAPPS has created an educational application to teach the Native American language to children. As the development team demonstrates the app on an iPad, it is clear that they understand the role they have played in the continuity of these people’s heritage.

Paul Jacobs holds his iPhone and with a smile says, “We’re never more than six feet away from this device. This is the one device that’s always with you and the one that you’ll return home for in the morning if you forgot it. It is the hub of a person’s identity.”

The phrase “there’s an app for that” has become a popular punch line and much of the reason for that can be attributed to Fred and Paul Jacobs and their creativity.

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