Agunah Cases in the Age of Social Media

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

United States Representative Dave Camp is a proud Roman Catholic. The Republican congressman represents Michigan’s 4th District in Congress which includes places in Michigan’s “Up North” region that Jews only visit for a few days each year. Aside from the handful of families who live in Traverse City year round, Dave Camp likely doesn’t give much thought to Jewish people.

Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI) is being urged to force an Orthodox Jewish staffer to grant his ex-wife a get

Dave Camp’s Wikipedia entry boasts his many legislative accomplishments in Congress including taking over from fellow Michigan representative Sander Levin as chair of the House Ways and Means Committee. The last few lines of his Wikipedia entry however make up an odd footnote for a Roman Catholic congressman from Northern Michigan: “Congressman Camp has been criticized for dismissing charges against a staffer of his, Aharon Friedman, as ‘gossip.’ Friedman had been formally charged with contempt of proceedings by the Rabbinical Council of America for refusing to give his wife, Tamar Epstein, a Jewish divorce.”

If it weren’t for Dave Camp’s Orthodox Jewish staff member, he would likely never even know about the Jewish legal concepts of a Jewish bill of divorce (“get“), a recalcitrant husband (“mesorevet get“) or a chained woman (“agunah“). But that is precisely what is occupying a lot of his time right now even though he would rather be focused on other matters, including today’s Republican primary in Michigan.

I first wrote about this case in January 2011, just one day before Dave Camp took over the House Ways and Means Committee from Sandy Levin. The story didn’t get much attention then. However, a full scale social media attack has been waged recently to compel Rep. Dave Camp to force Aharon Friedman to give his ex-wife a get. This will be the first major agunah case in which social media plays a fundamental role.

As the barrage of comments were posted on Dave Camp’s official Facebook page urging his cooperation in this agunah case, he quickly ordered his staff to disable public comment posting on the page. An article in Politico yesterday explains why this is a tricky matter for the congressman as religion and politics collide in the public sphere:

Friedman, a tax counsel for Camp who has worked for the Michigan Republican since 2007, must consent to the get in order for his ex-wife, Tamar Epstein, to remarry, have additional children or even for her to wear her hair uncovered as unmarried Orthodox Jewish women are permitted to do. Friedman’s detractors charge that his behavior amounts to “domestic abuse.” 

The couple have engaged in a bitter custody battle over their daughter. After the failure of years of quiet efforts in the Jewish community — including a nonbinding request from D.C.’s rabbinical court for Friedman to consent to the get and a national rabbinical court’s “declaration of contempt” against him — Epstein’s supporters have increasingly turned to more public methods, including openly pressuring the congressman to intervene.

The situation is awkward for Camp because it is rare that the personal lives of congressional staffers become political issues for members of Congress. But the influential committee chairman is being dragged into the highly unusual situation now that Friedman’s opponents have decided to thrust it into the public sphere.

A petition calling on Rep. Camp to strongly urge Friedman to comply and grant his ex-wife a get has already been signed by over 1,500 people. It reads, “By refusing to condemn Friedman, in fact, dismissing criticism of Friedman’s behavior as “gossip”, Dave Camp is by default supporting abusive behavior. We aren’t asking Dave Camp to fire Aharon Friedman. All we want is for Camp to require that Friedman stop abusing his wife. It is a pity to be known as the congressman who employs and encourages abuse of women.”

The Organization for the Resolution of Agunot urged concerned activists to post a message on Dave Camp’s Facebook page every day until Passover, but now that the public comment feature has been turned off on the representative’s Facebook page, the protesters will have to use other means. Some Jewish bloggers, including Frum Satire, have used their Web soap boxes to publicize this travesty. Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, the rabbi of the Orthodox synagogue Ohev Sholom, first wrote about this story in late 2010 and has made this cause a top priority. He told Politico that he will go further than the online campaign and intends to write a letter of complaint to the House Ethics Committee.

This might be the first example of how social media can help get a recalcitrant husband to end the marital legal war and present his wife with a get, but it likely will not be the last. Prior to the immense growth in popularity of social networking sites, recalcitrant husbands were compelled to give a get through ads in local Jewish newspapers and boycotts of their business. Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and other social media will be the weapon of choice in future agunah cases.

Rep. Dave Camp can bar the public from posting on his Facebook page, but as Rick Santorum can attest there is no way to close off the Web from negative publicity. Dave Camp has to decide now if he wants future Google searches of his name to result in articles about his work in Congress or about his tax counsel’s personal marital conflict. The choice is his.

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

Sacha Baron Cohen Hits Ryan Seacrest with Kim Jong Il’s Ashes: Funny or Disrespectful?

Sacha Baron Cohen of course made a scene before tonight’s Oscars when he arrived on the “Red Carpet” in character as General Aladeen, the star of his upcoming movie “The Dictator.” Carrying the fake ashes of the late North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, Baron Cohen dumped the ashes onto Ryan Seacrest. As he walked away, he told Seacrest that when asked “Who are you wearing?” he should answer “Kim Jong Il.”

Sacha Baron Cohen dumps Kim Jong Il’s “ashes” on Ryan Seacrest (Photo: E! Entertainment)

It was meant as a prank and a publicity stunt. And like most of Sacha Baron Cohen’s publicity stunts, it worked. People will be talking about it on Monday morning and that will ultimately result in a larger box office take for “The Dictator.”


Watching the footage of Baron Cohen comically spilling the fake ashes of a dead dictator onto Ryan Seacrest reminded me of a similar scene from the season premier of “Two and a Half Men” this season. The new season began with Jon Cryer’s character Alan being surprised at seeing a soaking-wet Walden Schmidt (Ashton Kutcher) appearing at the Malibu house window and then tossing Charlie Sheen’s character’s ashes into the air. The ashes are later stepped on and then vacuumed. The spilling of a dead person’s ashes in error is an old comedy routine (remember Robert DeNiro’s mother’s ashes falling off the mantle in “Meet the Parents”?), but I still found it troubling. Sacha Baron Cohen dumping Kim Jong Il’s ashes on to Ryan Seacrest and Jon Cryer throwing Charlie Sheen’s ashes into the air were both funny and I laughed. However, it also made me think of how we should respect the dead.

Jon Cryer is surprised by the appearance of Ashton Kutcher’s character in “Two and a Half Men” and throws Charlie Sheen’s ashes (Adam Rose/CBS)

According to Jewish law, cremation is prohibited. We believe that dead bodies should return to the ground. Admittedly that could have had something to do with my discomfort at watching the scene from “Two and a Half Men.” Interestingly, I wasn’t as troubled watching the “Weekend at Bernie’s” movie in which a dead corpse is paraded around the beach for a few days.


The comedic gags with spilled ashes and a dancing corpse are one thing. They are meant to be humorous. However, we should remember the ethic of respecting the dead. K’vod ha-met in the Hebrew refers to the Jewish law of treating the deceased with honor. I have never attended Bodies: The Exhibition in which preserved human corpses are preserved and dissected to showcase the way the body’s systems work. I understand that it is for educational purposes, but purchasing a ticket to such a “show” has struck me as odd. It seems a disrespectful way to treat the dead.


What also comes to mind when I think about how we must honor and respect the dead is the recent published photograph by the National Enquire of a dead Whitney Houston lying in her coffin. I understand that the goal of this tabloid is to sell copies of their paper to make money, but this immediately struck me as crossing the line of decency and appropriateness. Journalistic integrity and responsibility is becoming harder to find these days, but the National Enquire should have refused to purchase this photograph. Publishing it on the front page of the tabloid was disrespectful to Whitney Houston’s family and was certainly a violation of the edict to respect the dead.

While I am uncomfortable even seeing fake ashes being used as a joke, I certainly understand how Sacha Baron Cohen was attempting to get shock value out of his stunt at tonight’s Academy Awards and how “Two and a Half Men” was making a joke (and perhaps a statement about Charlie Sheen). Where I think our society needs to tread more cautiously is when actual dead bodies are used inappropriately. The Bodies exhibit has been very successful for many years despite some people’s criticism of it. While I don’t plan to ever buy a ticket and attend this exhibition, I do understand how it can be an educational endeavor. However, the case of Whitney Houston’s dead corpse being published on the front page of a tabloid newspaper (and then all over the Internet), is a shame.

No matter how curious our society might be to see such a photograph, I hope more tact will be displayed in the future so that dead bodies (no matter what form they take) will be respected and honored. Sacha Baron Cohen was going for sensationalism tonight at the Oscars and he clearly understands how death gets our attention. 

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

Best Jewish Apps of 2011

Originally published in The Jewish Week

As I walked around the recent International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, one thing was impossible to miss. Mobile applications are being integrated everywhere and into everything. Smartphones are no longer the only devices on which users are downloading their favorite apps.

2010 saw a proliferation of iPhones and Android phones on the market, and with that came a sharp rise in the number of mobile apps being downloaded. In 2011, we realized that we needed those apps on our tablets, computers and televisions. And 2012 will be the year we download apps to our automobiles as well.

One of the coolest new devices I learned about at the 2012 CES was Pioneer’s AppRadio 2. With its Advanced App Mode, Pioneer is able to bring AppRadio functionality to its line of auto navigation and DVD receivers. Its new AppRadio 2 supports Android devices as well as iPhones and iPads. Imagine having a seven-inch glass touch screen on your dashboard with the same multi-touch functionality of a tablet. This means we’ll soon be using our favorite mobile apps in the car (with caution, of course) to locate the closest restaurant, see the Yelp reviews, and then tweet an invitation to a few friends to meet for lunch.

Apps will also play a prominent role in the soon-to-be-released Windows 8 operating system. As more consumers add Smart TVs to their living rooms and home theaters, the number of mobile app downloads will continue to surge. For those who think the only place people are downloading apps is from Apple’s App Store, don’t fool yourself. Yes, there are now half a million apps in the Apple App Store, but Android is moving quickly to capture half of the worldwide smartphone market in 2012. The iPhone 4S, which began shipping last year, is a big hit, but Android’s new Ice Cream Sandwich is sure to excite as well.

More smartphones, tablets and smart TVs mean more Jewish- themed apps being created and available for download. Plus, one of the nice aspects of mobile apps is that they can be improved by the developer and updated instantly by the consumer. That means that some of the best Jewish apps from 2010 might be on the 2011 list as well, but be certain that there were noticeable upgrades.
This year’s lineup of the best Jewish apps includes (in no particular order) utilities, educational resources, games and novelties. Many apps designed specifically for either Apple or Android devices can, in fact, be downloaded on both.

This is far from an exhaustive list as there are hundreds of other Jewish apps available. Check out www.jewishiphonecommunity.org for a comprehensive listing of Jewish apps as they are released.

I-TORAH WITH ENGLISH FOR IPHONE & IPAD (CROWDED ROAD) – $16.99
This is a complete English translation of the Torah with options for full page or interlinear mode. Includes audio lecture for every portion, with both chapter mode and parsha mode. Users can jump to the weekly parsha with a single click. It is integrated with Torah commentaries from Rashi and Ramban (Nahmanides) and has a full keyword search.

TANACH BIBLE – HEBREW/ENGLISH BIBLE (DAVKA CORP.) – $2.99
It is the ideal study tool for the Hebrew and English Bible on your iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad. Tanach Bible’s new version features crisp Hebrew text with precise placement of Hebrew vowels and cantillation marks, and verse-by-verse synchronization between Hebrew, English, and Rashi’s commentary.

SIDDUR/LUACH (RUSTY BRICK) – $9.99
Take your weekday siddur with you with this feature-packed Jewish prayer book. You’ll get every version of the Jewish prayer book and real time Zmanim will give you the prayer times for each day based on your location determined with the iPhone’s GPS. A Minyanim database will help you find the nearest prayer service. Also available for iPad.

I-NACH FOR IPAD (MAPLEWOODS ASSOCIATES LTD) – $9.99
iNach is the only iPad app focused on the Nevi’im (Prophets) & Ketuvim (Writings) of the Tanach. Featuring English translation & search, classic Jewish medieval commentaries and a user-interface designed exclusively for the iPad.

I-TORAH BLESSINGS (BEHRMAN HOUSE) – $1.99
This app will help you prepare for the next time you’re called to the Torah. Learn or practice the blessings before and after the Torah reading. Touch-n-Read technology lets you hear each word individually as you read along, and the auto-record feature lets you listen to yourself practice. Also includes the Shehecheyanu and parent blessings for a child, plus video demonstrations of putting on a tallit, and participating in the aliyah process.

JEWISH JOURNAL (TRIBE MEDIA CORP) – FREE
Jewish Journal is the first complete Jewish news app for the iPad.
TIKUN KORIM (RUSTY BRICK) – $19.99
Now you can practice for your bar mitzvah with an iPhone & iPad app that helps you learn to read your bar mitzvah parsha. The app is an interactive Tikun Korim. The Tikun works on both the iPhone and iPad and has many features to aid in learning your reading.

POCKET ISIDDUR (GP IMP) – FREE
This free iPod and iPhone version of the prayer book comes with every version imaginable, from Sephardic to Ashkenazic. The new version has adjustable font size. iPad version also available.

SHABBOS ALARM CLOCK (RUSTY BRICK) – $.99
Displays current time on screen. Set up to three alarms, which automatically shut off after a specified duration (10-50 seconds). Chose genuine alarm clock sound or vibrate. No snooze button function interferes with Shabbat rules.

ALEF BET FOR KIDS (RUSTY BRICK) – $4.99
The Alef Bet App works on the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad devices and provides a fun, interactive learning experience for children. It helps them learn the Alef Bet through pictures, sound, animation, and interactivity. Each letter of the Alef Bet is accompanied by its Hebrew and English pronunciations, and by a picture of a word associated with it.

RAMBAM’S MISHNEH TORAH (JOSHUA MEIER) – $7.99
This app includes the entire Mishneh Torah including Maimonides’s introduction and his list of Mitzvot (commandments). The app includes the ability to search the entire Mishneh Torah. You can also bookmark different laws. Supports email sharing.

I-PHONE TALMUD DIRECTORY (TES) – $14.99
The complete Talmud dictionary from Marcus Jastrow with over 120,000 entries and bi-directional Hebrew-English and Aramaic-English references.

EICHAH/LAMENTATIONS (HEBREW IN HAND) – $.99
Fully-pointed Hebrew with English translation. Eichah (Lamentations) cries out through time, engulfing the reader in the loss of a city and her people. This ancient poem transcends history, connecting the human tragedy with a call to remember, and to renew faith.

HEBREW EMAIL (RUSTY BRICK) – FREE
Now you can type emails in Hebrew. This application will enable you to type both subject line and email body in Hebrew. It will then send the data directly into the iPhone’s mail application, for you to send to your contacts.

HEBREW BIBLE FOR ANDROID (IVRI) – FREE
Hebrew Bible application. Read/Search the whole Bible on the go.

HEBREW IN A MONTH FOR ANDROID (LEARN LIKE KIDS) – FREE
How to learn to understand the world — a question that has an answer! How can children learn a foreign language within half a year? And why does a regular person spend years of difficult studies on the same task? It’s all because of a certain skill that children aren’t aware of, and adults have forgotten.

TORAH FOR IPAD (RUSTY BRICK) – FREE
This Torah’s 248 columns (amudim) are magically stitched together on your iPad. The tools are provided to make finding the weekly Torah portion (Parsha), bookmarks (famous selections included) and a pointer (Yad). Dive into the ancient texts and experience it all on the Torah.

I-COMFORT (BEHRMAN HOUSE) – $1.99
This app teaches all the Jewish traditions, rituals, blessings, and prayers for the mourning process. iComfort can help you reach out with care and confidence to family or friends who have lost someone they love. If you have lost a loved one, iComfort can help you learn the Kaddish, and calculate the exact dates on which you should recite it.

I-PARASHAH (JACA SOFTWARE SOLUTIONS) – $4.99
This app gives you the weekly Torah portions in the palm of your hand. Search for any parsha by name or date with this app.

SHABBAT SHALOM FOR ANDROID (RUSTY BRICK) – FREE
The Shabbat application will allow you to quickly check the candle lighting times, Havdalah times and parsha for the week in any location in the world. This comes in handy when you quickly want to know when Shabbat is or if you want to know if it is too late to call your in-laws in Israel. Just flip through the different cities and countries, to see what the local time is and what time they start or finish Shabbat.

JEWISH ROCK RADIO (jacAPPS) – FREE
Jewish Rock Radio is the voice of Jewish youth featuring high-caliber, contemporary Jewish rock music with your favorite Jewish rock artists from the US, Israel, and beyond. JRR broadcasts fresh programming including interviews with Jewish youth from coast-to-coast sharing exciting ways they are engaging in Jewish life.

DAF YOMI+ (OKTM WEBSITES) – $4.99
Upgrade version of the free Daf Yomi with the option to choose Masechet (volume) and Daf (page).

ISRAEL365 (NOAH WEISZ) – FREE
This new app combines breathtaking photographs of Israel with inspiring Biblical passages describing the significance of the Holy Land. It features over 25 award-winning Israeli photographers and covers the width and breadth of the Promised Land.

JEW OR NOT JEW (JOHANN LEVY-J SOFT) – $1.99
While a similar version of this app was banned by Apple’s online App Store in France the developer clearly explains that this app is only intended for fun. This App puts together for you thousands of Jewish personalities and defines their Jewish background: Jewish mother, Jewish father or convert to Judaism.

YIDDISH DICTIONARY (DEEP POWDER SOLUTIONS) – $1.99
This application for the iPhone and iPod Touch is a dictionary-based application about Yiddish terms and words


*GAMES*

HEBREW TRIVIA (LUCIDEV) – FREE
Hebrew Trivia Game For Android Devices.

NOISEMAKE GRAGGER (BEHRMAN HOUSE) – FREE
This app is a virtual grogger on your iPhone. You can pick from different sounds or record your own and twirl your iPhone like a gragger to make noise. Remember to wait for Haman’s name.

THE BIBLE BOOCLIPS (CASTLE BUILDERS) – $2.99
Animated by The Kids Bible Company, the outstanding level of the animation of these videos appeals to children of all ages. This digital Bible book narrates unforgettable Biblical stories to children, using vivid animation, video clips and rich graphics from the Animated Kids Bible stories DVD series.

DREIDEL LABRYNTH (BEHRMAN HOUSE) – FREE
Navigate a ball through the labyrinth while collecting gelt and using the pinwheel to spin the dreidel. Collect and wager gelt as you compete. Earn an achievement for each board in the labyrinth. A different labyrinth appears for each letter on the dreidel.

I-HANUKKAH (BEHRMAN HOUSE) – FREE
Learn Chanukah blessings or refresh your memory with your own interactive Chaunkah. Touch-n-Read technology lets you read along and hear every word and sing along too. Record mode makes it easy to practice reading the Hebrew words and automatically saves your last recording.

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

NASCAR and the Jews

For some reason NASCAR racing has never been a popular sport for the Jewish people. While kosher food and minyans (prayer groups) are common at many baseball, football and basketball games around the country, one would be hard pressed to locate the same at a NASCAR race. I think this has more to do with the culture of NASCAR racing rather than the actual sport. After all, I know a lot of Jewish people who enjoy cars and driving fast, but they probably won’t be tuning in to Sunday’s Daytona 500.

Short of Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell) converting to Judaism in the Talladega Nights sequel, I don’t think NASCAR will ever become a popular sport for the Jews. However, there are a couple news items that could lead to more Jews embracing NASCAR racing this year.

The first is the sponsorship of a NASCAR team by Quicken Loans, the mortgage company owned by Jewish businessman and philanthropist Dan Gilbert of Detroit. In addition to owning Quicken Loans, the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, and a host of other companies, Gilbert announced in late 2011 that Quicken Loans will be the primary sponsor of Ryan Newman’s No. 39 Chevrolet Impala. Gilbert isn’t the first Jewish business owner to sponsor a NASCAR car of course (Home Depot has been one of NASCAR’s largest sponsors and is owned by Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank).

One more way that Gilbert is becoming involved with NASCAR is with a new website dedicated to the racing sport. This week, Quicken Loans announced the launch of QuickenLoansRacing.com. The site provides fans an inside look at the world of NASCAR and provides unprecedented access to the world of stock car racing. Race fans will find exclusive interviews with Ryan Newman and his Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) teammate, three-time and reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart (who won yesterday’s first Gatorade Duel), on the site. Additional content includes behind-the-scenes photos and videos from the Stewart-Haas race shop, interviews with the crew that helps get the No. 39 Chevrolet to the track each week, and more. Quicken Loans has also created a racing Facebook fan page, which can be found at facebook.com/quickenloansracing.

The Quicken Loans NASCAR sponsorship and new NASCAR website might not get more Jews to appreciate the racing sport, but a NASCAR car sporting the Israeli flag certainly could. According to its website, “America/Israel Racing was formed to promote awareness of and support by Americans for Israel, the only true democracy in the Middle East. We hope to educate Americans on the importance the United States’ relationship with Israel through exposure provided by one of the largest spectator sports in the world – NASCAR. With the support of like-minded individuals, AIR will spread its message of American Israeli support throughout the entire 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and beyond.”

Sunday’s Daytona 500 would have been the first opportunity for NASCAR fans to see the Toyota with the painted Israeli and U.S. flags. However, the America Israel Racing team’s No. 49 Toyota driven by J.J. Yeley failed to qualify for the Daytona 500 with a last place finish in yesterday’s second Gatorade Duel in Daytona Beach.

In the Jerusalem Post, Rich Shirey, a Zionist Christian and co-founder of AIR explained, “As the only true democracy in the Middle East, we feel it is critical that the United States reaffirms its commitment to stand beside Israel. By fielding a car in the most-watched race of the year, we hope to show Israel just how many Americans feel the same way.” The Toyota racing car’s design was inspired by AIR’s mission of promoting American-Israeli support and prominently displays both the American and Israeli flags. A striking image of a bald eagle holding both nations’ flags in its claws and an olive branch in its beak is featured on the hood.

Had the American Israel Racing car qualified for the Daytona 500, its message of the importance of the American-Israel relationship would be seen by the 168,000 fans who watch the race in person and the estimated 15.6 million Americans who will tune in on television. By contrast, AIPAC’s policy conference next month will have 13,000 in attendance. There is certainly a strong possibility that the Israeli flag-adorned racing car will eventually compete in a major NASCAR race. Will it guarantee a love affair between NASCAR and the Jews? That’s unlikely, but it could help increase Jewish interest in the sport.

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

Ryan Braun Wins Appeal of Suspension for Failed Drug Test

Trivia question: How many Major League Baseball player have successfully won an appeal of a suspension resulting from a positive drug test? The answer is only one. And that is Ryan Braun, the Milwaukee Brewers’ Jewish superstar.

Ryan Braun should feel vindicated after successfully appealing his 50-game suspension (Getty Images)

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel just reported that Braun won his appeal “not so much on contesting the result of the test but the testing process itself, some kind of technicality.” Apparently, there was some question about the chain of custody that Ryan Bruan’s urine sample went through for his test.

Major League Baseball’s 50 game suspension for Braun would have been devastating to the Brewers and to the reputation of last year’s NL MVP.

Last December, popular sports blogger Ron Kaplan of the NJ Jewish News (and Kaplan’s Korner) asked my opinion on Braun’s alleged positive drug test. I said:

I remain hopeful that the test was faulty and that Braun will get his good name back. It is a sad and unfortunate turn of events for this very talented player. Jewish children are in need of good role models and no matter if Braun doesn’t count in many people’s Halachic definition of a Jewish person, he has served as a good role model during his Major League Baseball career as he has been in the public spotlight. Certainly this will change if the results of the drug test are validated. Cheating is a clear violation of Jewish values and I’m praying that Braun will be vindicated.

I am glad he has been vindicated and will be able to start the 2012 season off on the right foot. The drug test and the subsequent suspension and successful appeal will all be small footnotes in an otherwise impressive Major League career for Ryan Braun.

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

The Barack Obamulke Yarmulke

There is much discussion about “The Jewish Vote” in the ongoing presidential race. While “Jews for George” made headlines during the 2004 campaign and more Jews than expected voted for McCain in 2008, in the 2012 election the political pundits are already predicting a large shift among Jewish voters, who historically have voted overwhelmingly Democrat.

Aside from polling numbers, another way to determine how the Jewish vote is shaping up will be from yarmulke sales. In the past few presidential elections the nominees from both major parties have had their name and logo embroidered on suede yarmulkes (or kippahs) as one more way for supporters to promote their candidate.

Already, yarmulkes featuring President Obama’s re-election campaign logo are being offered for sale on the Web. The Obama Yarmulkes were famously known as “Obamulkes” when they first appeared in 2007. The ivory suede yarmulkes with the 2012 Obama re-election logo are available for pre-order online or in person at J. Levine Books & Judaica in NYC. Of course, it is being emphasized that these kippahs are made in the USA as it would be scandalous if they were made anywhere else. The yarmulkes are selling for $9 each at Obamulkes.com (with a $5 shipping charge). No doubt they’ll be on the heads of many Obama supporters at the upcoming AIPAC Policy Conference at the Washington Convention Center in early March and on college campuses around the country.

Matthew Walters, the creator of the Obamulkes, isn’t naive. He knows that there will be many Jews who aren’t fans of the president and won’t like seeing the Obama re-election campaign logo featured on a Jewish religious item. But he offers a different perspective: “As a Jewish American who’s also a vocal supporter of President Obama, I see the Obamulke yarmulke as a unique conversation starter. With so much at stake at the ballot box in 2012, there’s a real value in wearing your politics on your sleeve — or in this case, keppe (Yiddish for head),” he explains.

During the 2008 campaign, more than 1,500 Obamulkes were delivered to Jewish supporters all around the country, but the most memorable recipient turned out to be Barack Obama himself. “In November 2007, then-candidate Barack Obama came to New York to give an historic speech at the Apollo Theater in Harlem,” Walters remembers. “I had a chance to meet him, so I handed him one of our 2008 Obamulkes. He laughed and showed it to his Secret Service guys. I think he got a little kick out of it.”

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

Know Before Whom You Stand: Learning from Everyone

These words are displayed over the ark containing the Torah scrolls in many synagogues: Da Lifnei Mi Atah Omed (“Know Before Whom You Stand”). Thousands of Jewish people see this reminder in front of them while sitting in synagogue. Of course, the phrase reminds us to keep in mind that we stand before God while we pray in synagogue and it calls to mind the scene in Exodus when Moses appeared before God at the Burning Bush.

I thought of these words yesterday while reading an article in the New York Times about the recent armed robbery of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer at his Caribbean vacation home. The article goes on to discuss the anonymity that the Supreme Court justices enjoy and the relative lack of security provided to them. The article concludes with a true story that demonstrates just how anonymous these justices are. “One day, Justice [John Paul] Stevens was walking outside the court when tourists stopped him. They wanted to know if he would mind moving out of the way so they could take a good photograph of the Supreme Court.”

These tourists had no idea that they could have enjoyed the memorable experience of meeting one of the nine justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, but instead they were left with a photograph of a building in which this justice sits and makes history while ruling on the most important legal cases of our time. I couldn’t help but laugh while reading this story. I recalled the famous Yehuda Amichai poem, “Tourists”:

Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower, I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. “You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!” I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them, “You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

What a shame that those tourists in our nation’s capital didn’t recognize Justice Stephens. Too often we don’t take the time to recognize the important people in front of us and what they have to offer. Here’s another true story that shows how easy it is to ignore the wonder right in front of our noses:

On a cold January morning in 2007, a man sat at a Metro station in Washington DC and started to play the violin. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that thousands of people went through the station, most of them commuting to work. The story goes that after three minutes, a middle aged man finally noticed the musician but he only slowed down to listen for a few seconds. Some people stopped to toss some money in his collection till, but most simply ignored the violinist. The individual who paid the most attention was a 3-year-old boy, but his mother hurried him along. In all he collected $32, but no one really stopped to enjoy his music. When he finished, no one applauded.

Turns out that this wasn’t just any violinist playing on any violin. This wasn’t a beggar looking to make some quick lunch money either. The violinist was Joshua Bell, who only days earlier had sold out at a Boston theatre where the average ticket was $100. In the subway, Bell was playing one of the most intricate pieces ever written with a violin worth $3.5 million. The Washington Post conducted this as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and priorities of people. (The video of Joshua Bell playing violin in the subway station is below.)

Why don’t we recognize people’s gifts when they are right in front of us? We have a reminder that we’re standing before God when we pray in a synagogue, but perhaps it would be helpful to have this reminder when we stand before other human beings. In Pirkei Avot, Ben Zoma teaches, “Who is wise? He who learns from all people.”

I have found that many Jewish people are hesitant to learn from other Jews who are of different denominations than their own. We can all learn from those around us and oftentimes, we are forced to think in new and different ways when we keep an open mind to those who think differently than us. While the teacher in front of you may not look like you or dress like you, I encourage you to remember before whom you stand. It is a child of God who, in the words of the sage Ben Zoma, may make you wise.

One of the gifts of the Internet is that we have much more access to the wisdom of teachers from around the world. Every teacher who offers his or her Torah via the Internet is a “rabbi without borders.” It is so important that we are all open to learning from others. We just never know when that human being in front of us will be a Supreme Court justice, a world renown musician, or a great teacher who will forever change our life.

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

Jewish Non-Profits and Social Media – Do They Get It?

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

As a rabbi who is a social mediaologist, I find myself consulting a lot of synagogues and Jewish nonprofits on their social media strategy. The leaders of these institutions all recognize that they require a social media strategy, but the plan for how it will be implemented varies greatly.

Many synagogues in 2012 have yet to budget for social media marketing so they look for the quickest and cheapest solution. In most cases this comprises of identifying a volunteer lay person or existing staff member who is willing and able to set up the congregation’s social media presence across the major networks. In some instances this is a teen who claims to be a Facebook wiz and over-promises and under-delivers. With many volunteers, congregations often get what they pay for.

Synagogues and Jewish nonprofits are jumping on the social media bandwagon, but are they taking the initiative seriously enough?

Jewish organizations seem to be a little further ahead than synagogues in the social media department. Third party retailers like Target and Home Depot have forced nonprofit institutions to get on the social media bandwagon quickly because of their online contests in which the retailer partners with nonprofits for fundraising prizes. These crowd-raising initiatives have required nonprofits to bolster their social identity online to compete in the contests.

While businesses in the for-profit world have allocated serious funds to their online marketing initiative, the nonprofit world is still light-years behind. That should be no surprise because nonprofits often take a wait-and-see attitude when it comes to change.

Robert Evans and Avrum Lapin recently wrote on the eJewishPhilanthropy blog about an unofficial survey they conducted to investigate how Jewish nonprofits are “utilizing social media and how it enables them to meet the demands that they and their leaders are facing.” From the outset, they assert that the picture is not entirely positive and quote a synagogue software system developer lamenting that “most of the Jewish world seems frozen in the 20th century when it comes to being technologically advanced.”

Our recent survey demonstrated a significant lack of human or dollar resources invested by Jewish groups into Facebook and Twitter. Very few synagogues even seem to have any presence on Facebook or Twitter, although they all have websites, many of which are reasonably interactive. Robyn Cimbol, director of development at New York City’s Temple Emanu-El, noted that her congregation was probably the first Jewish congregation to have a website but today they have no specific plans to foster Facebook or Twitter activities, citing other pressing priorities and no apparent demands from their 2,800 member households. “We have limited staff resources and capabilities for this,” she noted, “but we are gearing up ultimately to recognize social media as one communications opportunity,” she told us. She did emphasize that “a number of staff members do use Face Book [sic]… to communicate with specific constituents but it is not used Temple-wide.”

Facebook reports that 89% of 1.3 million U.S. nonprofit organizations boast a social networking presence, offering opportunities potentially for fundraising. However, fundraising on Facebook is still a “minority effort,” despite recent gains.

The authors of the study recognize that the Jewish nonprofits that have succeeded the most in social media marketing have been those that have participated in social fundraisers with third parties, such as mega-retailers or major foundations. Many organizations that find themselves competing in these online social fundraisers have allocated staff time or in some cases hired dedicated part-time staff to manage these initiatives (if they win there is a good return on investment).

The Jewish Education Project and JESNA’s Lippman Kanfer Institute (in partnership with UJA Federation of New York) have launched the Jewish Futures Competition, which will dole out $1,800 prizes for Jewish nonprofits to advance their social media identities. As more synagogues and Jewish nonprofits become more focused on bolstering their social media exposure (moving from building their fan base on a Facebook page to increasing their brand amplification through likes, comments and shares), they will integrate their email marketing (Constant Contact, MailChimp, etc.) and online fundraising (Razoo, CauseCast, DonorPages, etc.) into their social networking.

Evans and Lapin’s study demonstrates that nonprofits do understand the value in using social networks for fundraising. “According to this year’s Nonprofit Social Network Benchmark Report, four out of five nonprofit organizations find social networks a ‘valuable’ fundraising option.” However, these same nonprofits aren’t able to quantify why that is. It is important to remember that social media is still in its infancy. As it grows (and its exponential growth doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon), more synagogues and nonprofits will get on board by allocating the necessary resources to its success.

As they say, the “proof is in the pudding” and the ROI will be noticeable for the synagogues and Jewish nonprofits who dedicate the necessary time and resources to building their brand/mission exposure through social media. Change is never easy and the nonprofit world is more risk averse when it comes to technological innovation. At least the conversations about social media integration are taking place in the Jewish nonprofit world, and the studies are showing that a realization exists that this is a necessary form of communication, marketing and fundraising in the 21st century.

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

Rabbi – What I Really Do Meme

The “What I Really Do” meme has taken over the Internet.

As explained on the knowyourmeme.com website: “What People Think I Do / What I Really Do is a series of visual charts depicting a range of preconceptions associated with a particular field of occupation or expertise. Unlike image macro series that are based on singular stereotypes like Advice Animals, this series compares varying impressions about one’s profession held by others, self-image and the often mundane reality of the job.”

The meme originated with artist Garnet Hertz’s various preconceived notions and generalizations that are associated with being a contemporary artist.

Here is my ‘RABBI’ contribution to the meme:

What I Really Do Meme - Rabbi
What Rabbis Really Do
And here’s my ‘CANTOR’ contribution to the meme:
What Cantors Really Do

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

Evan Kaufmann – Jewish Hockey Player for Germany

Originally published at JTA.org

More than 65 years ago, Evan Kaufmann’s great-grandparents were murdered in the Auschwitz death camp. Now he is taking the ice for the German national hockey team.

Following a successful hockey career at the University of Minnesota, Kaufmann tried out for several professional clubs in the United States before being advised by his agent that his best option was to play for a team in the German Ice Hockey League, or the DEL. His late grandfather’s German roots enabled Kaufmann to receive German citizenship quickly, and he and his wife, Danielle, relocated to Dusseldorf in 2008.

This weekend, the 27-year-old forward will represent the German national team in the Minsk Cup, a four-nation tournament. He also plans to compete with the national team in May’s world championships, and hopes to have a chance to make the German Olympic squad that will compete in the 2014 games in Sochi, Russia.

During his first years playing for the DEG Metro Stars, Kaufmann kept his Judaism to himself and didn’t tell his teammates that he was the grandson of a survivor or that his great-grandparents perished in the Holocaust.

“At first I was pretty uncomfortable expressing that I was Jewish and speaking about my family’s background, but that was true even in America,” Kaufmann told JTA. “It’s not something in the hockey world that is really talked about. It’s not something I was comfortable sharing with most people. But I’ve found that the younger generation here in Germany is open to differences, and from my experience they’ve all been interested in knowing more about being Jewish, including the holidays and traditions.”

Kaufmann and his wife are expecting their first child, a son, in June and will be relocating from Dusseldorf to Nuremberg, where Kaufmann recently signed a three-year contract with the local team, one of 14 in the German hockey league. [The Nuremberg team’s arena is located on the same grounds as the Nazi Party’s rally grounds]

How did his parents react when he decided to play professional hockey in Germany?

“They were a little unsure initially just because of everything that happened [in Germany], but they knew it was my lifelong goal to be a professional hockey player and I committed so much time to it,” Kaufman said.

“It’s an issue not just for them but for a lot of American Jews in general. Germany is so different today than it was back then. I wish more people could come over here today so they wouldn’t have to carry that stereotype forever.”

Being chosen to play for the national team carried with it mixed emotions for Kaufmann.

“A lot of the time I was thinking whether my grandpa would be happy about this or sad or mad,” he said. “The more I thought about it, I know he had plans to come back to Germany before he died. He wasn’t able to, but that helped me get over those initial fears. I feel more pride with the association of feeling German than I ever thought I’d have.”

Observing Judaism has been a challenge for the young Kaufmanns as well.

“The first year we were in Dusseldorf, we went to a small Orthodox synagogue. We had a tough experience,” he recalled. “We were taking photos from the outside and we were questioned and had to show our passports because there was an incident there a few years prior. That spoiled it for us.”

The couple makes a point of trying to keep the Jewish traditions alive. They share holiday dinners together and observe Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and the Passover seder. They had met at Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Minnetonka, Minn., the Conservative synagogue where their families are members.

“They took notice of each other in our sanctuary when they were at High Holiday services a few years ago and started to date,” Rabbi Harold Kravitz recalls. “They married in our sanctuary a few years later.”

Since becoming more open about his Judaism and his family’s ties to the Holocaust, Kaufmann’s teammates have become more curious.

“They want to know what everything means for me compared to them, but ultimately they know who I am as a person,” he said. “Our friendships were established without religion, so it doesn’t change anything. I was always hesitant to talk about it, but now that I’m being more public about it, I’ve become more comfortable with the history. I think it’s a good story to express.”

While his teammates tell him that anti-Semitism still exists in certain regions in Germany, Kaufmann hasn’t experienced any firsthand.

“I don’t think it’s any different than in America or any other country,” he said. “There’s always going to be people who have their own beliefs. Personally, I’ve only had good experiences in Germany.”

Kaufmann knows that he has his detractors in the Jewish community who find it troubling that someone who lost members of his family in the Holocaust could be playing for the German national team.

“Initially there was a part of me that thought that way,” Kaufmann said. But, he added, “I’ve always been taught to give people a second chance.”

He adds, “Everything that happened was so long ago and in a country that was so different. Obviously I never want to forget what happened, and that’s why I tell my story. But to hold that against a whole country of people who had nothing to do with it would not be right.”

Kaufmann has considered that he could be competing against the United States in May at the world championships, but he’s not concerned.

“I’m focused on helping this team and playing my role within the squad to help us win hockey games, and I don’t think it matters who the opponent is,” he said.

In addition to fulfilling his dream of playing on the Olympic team in two years, Kaufmann also expressed his desire to get his son skating when he’s 3 years old, a year earlier than his own first time on the ice.

Update: The German National Team lost both of its games in this weekend’s tournament, but Evan Kaufmann was named player of the game in one of the losses. 

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