Why Jewish Summer Camp Remains Hot Investment for Donors

Professor Arnold Eisen, a scholar of American Judaism and the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, proclaimed, “Nothing I do to build Jewish life, Jewish education, or the Jewish community is more important than getting more kids to Jewish camps.”

Those are strong words from the ivory tower and quite the endorsement of Jewish summer camp. But Eisen wasn’t the only head of a major Jewish academic institution who lauded Jewish summer camping at the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s recent Leaders Assembly. He shared the stage with Richard Joel and Rabbi David Ellenson, the presidents of the Orthodox and Reform academies respectively, who both agreed that the answer to Jewish continuity can be found at summer camp.

All three academicians extolled the virtues of the summer camp experience for young Jewish children who seamlessly go from overnight hiking and canoe trips to Friday evening Shabbat services by the lake. The leaders of Yeshiva University, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Hebrew Union College took turns standing in front of 400 Jewish camping leaders at the FJC gathering – from camp directors to donors – to explain how their denomination would help to grow the Jewish camping phenomenon in the coming years. These schools train Jewish educators – most of whom discovered or strengthened their Jewish identity at summer camp – and with a $45 million investment from the Jim Joseph Foundation (divided among the three institutions) they will be able to prepare more young people who wish to work in the informal Jewish educational field of Jewish camping.

With over $90 million of philanthropic contributions coming through the FJC since its founding 13 years ago to benefit Jewish camping, it is clear that this is where donors are investing the most capital in what has become known as “Jewish continuity.”

Approximately 72,000 Jewish children currently attend a Jewish summer camp. The statistics show that the Jewish summer camp experience has a tremendous effect on children and their Jewish identity. A recent study by the renowned sociologist Steven M. Cohen commissioned by the FJC shows that Jewish campers grow up to be connected to Jewish life and identify proudly within the Jewish community as adults. “The analysis indicates that they bring, first of all, an increased inclination to practice Jewish behaviors in their lives, from Shabbat candle lighting to using Jewish websites, and to appreciate the value of Jewish charity,” Cohen concludes in the study. “Secondly, they bring an increased inclination to value and seek out the experience of Jewish community, whether in the immediate sense of joining other Jews in prayer or in the more abstract sense of identifying with fellow Jews in Israel.”

Most Jewish summer camps are nonprofits and, historically, have not been able to compete with the lavish facilities and stellar sports programs at the privately owned for-profit camps. But that is changing. Over the past decade the hottest cause for major philanthropists in the Jewish community has been funding the growth of Jewish summer camps, which means seeding new camps and ensuring there are ample need-based scholarships to afford all young Jewish children the ability to experience the magic of camp.

Camp leaders have long recognized that a main reason more young people don’t make Jewish camping part of their annual summer experience has been because they choose to focus on one interest like drama or a particular sport and seek out camps that specialize in those activities. FJC has put its attention into funding such specialty camps that concentrate on one main interest category but also infuse the Jewish magic for which Jewish camps have been known. FJC was able to open five new camps in 2010 as a result of the first Specialty Camps Incubator – based on a business incubator model – and now the second wave of that program has been launched resulting from the $8.6 million investment by the AVI CHAI Foundation together with the Jim Joseph Foundation.

There seems to be something inherently Jewish about summer camp. Indeed, when Jewish adults gather the conversation inevitably turns to Jewish camp memories filled with nostalgia. When two adult Jews meet for the first time, the game of “Jewish Geography” ensues and “Which camp did you go to?” and “Did you know so-and-so who went to that camp?” are the unavoidable questions.

As Eisen has written about Jewish summer camp, “For once in these kids’ lives, Jewishness is not something they are or do off to the side of life, in Hebrew school or synagogue. It is not a subject for debate but simply there, taken for granted, a part of what happens 24/7.”

No matter what the activity – from baseball and boating to crafts and campfires – the social aspects of Jewish camp all play out in a constant Jewish milieu. The benefits of those summer experiences are reaped over the course of a lifetime for the Jewish individual, and in turn for the Jewish community as well. Spring is upon us and we are now focused on Passover, but thousands of young Jewish children are already counting the days until school vacation and their own exodus to the freedom of another memorable summer at Jewish camp.

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

Warren Buffett Invests in Chametz

Usually when Warren Buffett makes a deal it is the big news of the day on CNBC and in the Wall Street Journal. But the Oracle of Omaha’s recent deal probably won’t get much attention and it certainly won’t have to be reported to the Security and Exchange Committee.

The Omaha World-Herald reported today that Rabbi Jonathan Gross of the Orthodox Beth Israel Synagogue in West Omaha chose Warren Buffett to be the non-Jewish buyer of the congregant’s chametz (leavened food products that are forbidden on Passover). Buffett, at 81-years-old, is the third-richest man in the world with a $44 billion net worth according to the recent Forbes list of billionaires.

Warren Buffett accepts the four 50-cent pieces from Rabbi Jon Gross during the chametz sale.

While Jews are required to rid their homes, offices and automobiles of all chametz products, there is a “legal fiction” that allows Jews to “sell” leavened goods that can’t be thrown away to a non-Jew who then sells the goods back following the holiday. A rabbi usually serves as the agent who transacts the deal on behalf of the congregation or community.

Before transacting the chametz deal with Buffett, Rabbi Gross explained the custom to the famous investor and head of Berkshire Hathaway Holdings. According to the Omaha World-Herald, Gross said, “Price is low before Passover. Price is high afterward. It’s a great short-term investment. So who would really appreciate this better than Warren Buffett?”

“The beauty of being an agnostic is that you are in no position to make any judgment about anything,” Buffett said in an interview. “You can join in on anything.”

Buffett said he decided to participate because the annual pre-Passover chametz sale is “a ceremony of enormous importance to Jews.” The only problem with Rabbi Gross’ planned arrangement with Buffett was that Passover begins this year at sunset on April 6 and due to his busy schedule, Buffett wanted to meet in late February (six weeks before Passover). Gross decided to keep the meeting with Buffett, because he wanted to raise awareness about the need for donations to the Food Bank for the Heartland.

To complete the ceremonial chametz sale Rabbi Gross gave Warren Buffett four 50-cent pieces along with a bottle of single-malt Scotch, a loaf of home-baked challah bread, and Buffett’s favorite snack, a bag of Cheetos (which incidentally aren’t kosher, but Gross wrote on his blog: “Cheetos are not kosher, but there is no problem buying a bag of them for someone who is not Jewish.”). Gross also handed Buffett two sets of keys — one to Beth Israel Synagogue and one to Gross’ west Omaha home, where the box and drums of food are kept. (Buffett agreed to donate the food to the food bank.)

The Oracle of Omaha and the west Omaha rabbi shook hands to complete the deal and Buffett even returned the 50-cent coins to the rabbi. He joked that now that he knows the asking price — four coins — he’ll bargain down to two coins next year. “Why didn’t anyone tell me about this earlier? This is a great investment,” Buffett said. “I could have been doing this for years.”

Rabbi Myer Kripke with Rabbi Jonathan Gross in Omaha, Nebraska

Gross, an Orthodox rabbi, also included Rabbi Myer Kripke in the purchase agreement with Buffett and brought the 98-year-old rabbi along with him to Buffett’s office. Rabbi Kripke is a retired Conservative rabbi who has been friends with Buffett for over 50 years, since the time they were were neighbors in Dundee. Rabbi Kripke’s late wife, Dorothy, wrote a children’s book series entitled “Let’s Talk About…” and Warren Buffett’s wife loved to read those books to her children. When she learned the author lived close by in Dundee she wanted to meet her. That is how the Kripkes and Buffets became dear friends. In the 1960s Buffett had the Kripke’s invest a small inheritance they had received from a relative in Berkshire Hathaway and from that investment they became millionaires many times over. That fortune allowed Myer and Dorothy Kripke to donate $10 million to the Jewish Theological Seminary to rebuild the tower under which the couple had been married decades earlier. That tower, which originally housed the Seminary’s library was severely damaged in a fire in 1966. Today it is known as the Kripke Tower.

On a personal note, Rabbi Kripke was very helpful in connecting me with Warren Buffett in 2009 when my uncle was diagnosed with Pancreatic cancer and given only a few months to live. I called Rabbi Kripke and told him how wonderful it would be if my uncle could play a round of golf at Augusta National where Mr. Buffett is a member. Within ten minutes I received a call from Mr. Buffett’s secretary Debbie Bosanek, who told me that she just asked Mr. Buffett (who was on a trans-Atlantic flight at the time) and he explained that Augusta National members were no longer allowed to grant such requests. Well, at least I tried and I’ll always be grateful to Rabbi Kripke for his assistance.

Back to Rabbi Gross and his chametz sale to Warren Buffett. I think this was an absolutely brilliant idea that Rabbi Gross had because it will make the sale of chametz more widely known. Perhaps because of Warren Buffett’s connection with this story, more Jews will make the effort to rid their homes of chametz before the Passover holiday and ensure that they include their name in their synagogue’s chametz sale.

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

Jewish Summer Camp and Helicopter Parents

Originally published on JTA.org

Parents find new benefit to Jewish camp: Freedom from themselves

When she took the stage recently before an audience of 400 Jewish camping enthusiasts, Lenore Skenazy wasted no time in addressing why she is known as “America’s Worst Mom.”

The author of a 2008 column in The New York Times describing how she let her 9-year-old son ride the subway home alone just to see if he could do it, Skenazy has been the subject of sharp criticism for her parenting philosophy. But Skenazy is fighting back, waging war against what she describes as overzealous and anxiety-ridden helicopter parents who hover over their children rather than letting them be “free-range kids,” affording them the freedom to make mistakes.

She even wrote a book on the subject: “Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry.”

Lenore Skenazy at the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Leaders Assembly

“Sending your kids to camp is a fantastic way to give kids back their freedom,” Skenazy said at the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s recent Leaders Assembly in this central New Jersey city. “Homesickness is a good thing. It shows they appreciate their home. So, thank God for camp.”

Summer camp has emerged as one of the most promising tools in the struggle to ensure Jewish continuity in an era when Jews face more choice and fewer barriers to assimilation. A recent study by the sociologist Steven M. Cohen commissioned by the FJC shows that campers grow up to be connected to Jewish life and identify proudly within the Jewish community as adults.

“The analysis indicates that they bring, first of all, an increased inclination to practice Jewish behaviors in their lives, from Shabbat candle lighting to using Jewish websites, and to appreciate the value of Jewish charity,” Cohen concludes in the study. “Secondly, they bring an increased inclination to value and seek out the experience of Jewish community, whether in the immediate sense of joining other Jews in prayer or in the more abstract sense of identifying with fellow Jews in Israel.”

Since its launch 13 years ago, the foundation has raised approximately $90 million to strengthen Jewish camps and, more recently, to encourage the growth of so-called Jewish specialty camps — those that focus on sports, art or outdoor adventures — in an attempt to siphon off some of the Jewish campers who might be drawn to non-Jewish camps focusing on specialty areas.

But the focus on identity building has obscured what some say is another, less-touted benefit of the camp experience that should also be a draw for Jewish parents: affording their kids a measure of freedom from intensive parenting.

“Kids go to camp and gain independence,” said Nancy Lublin, the founder of the nonprofits Dress for Success and DoSomething.org, and another speaker at the conference. “That’s why we need camp. It’s about the fun, tradition and independence. Go get dirty, get lice, sprain something. Parents will see that they don’t come home with their nose pierced, purple hair or worshiping the devil. It’s okay.”

Nancy Lublin of DoSomething.org addresses Jewish Summer Camp leaders

Helicopter parenting, a term used to refer to parents that hover over their children and pay exceedingly close attention to their every activity — sometimes to a degree that borders on smothering — is hardly a Jewish phenomenon. It has been the subject of numerous books and articles, and of late has sparked its own backlash. But Jewish parents, and particularly the much-maligned stereotypical Jewish mother, may be more susceptible to such impulses than most.

“We Jewish parents are definitely overprotective of our kids, and it’s tough to send them to overnight camp,” Lublin said. “But we all know it’s the right thing to do. It’s just what Jews do.”

For some parents, however, summer camp may not be a cure-all. Parents still call and write their kids and, with the proliferation of new communications technologies, they can remain involved to a degree that parents of a previous generation were not.

“Even when the children are away at camp, the parents will still be hovering,” said Michael Salamon, a psychologist in New York who has fingered overparenting as one of the reasons behind the so-called shidduch crisis, in which a glut of young unmarried adults — mainly in the Orthodox community — struggle to find suitable mates.

“I met with parents in a recent session who were so overprotective of their child that it was hindering the child’s ability to perform well in school,” Salamon said. “They told me they felt it was important to send their child to camp this summer to encourage independence, but really what I noticed is that they were looking for a vacation for themselves. They work so hard at parenting that they need a break.”

For parents like these, summer camp is a way to loosen the reins a little but in a way that still feels relatively safe.

Stephanie Steiner of Springfield, N.J., describes her own parenting style as “somewhat overprotective.” Still, every summer she ships off her kids to Camp Harlam, a Reform movement camp in Pennsylvania. They’ve demonstrated more independence as a result, which makes the experience — and the expense — worth it.

“We feel very comfortable with the camp and who is running it and how it is run, so it makes it easier,” Steiner said. “The camp’s motto is ‘Where friends become family,’ and we know our kids are so happy at their home away from home.”

Whatever the benefits of Jewish camping, there’s little sign that enthusiasm for it is on the wane. The Jim Joseph Foundation and the Avi Chai Foundation have put up $8.6 million in grant money to bring more Jewish children into the camping world by focusing on their specialized hobbies.

“Camp gives kids the permission to be themselves. Parents trust that camp is a positive place for building self-esteem and self-confidence,” said Jeremy Fingerman, the CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. “Jewish camp brings that and an even stronger sense of community.”

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

A Detroit Jewish Nonprofit Competes in Facebook Contest to Win $250,000

Thousands in Metro Detroit’s Jewish community have been flocking to Home Depot’s Facebook page in recent weeks. No, they are not all interested in becoming fans of the national retail giant. They are simply trying to help a local social service agency win $250,000 from the Home Depot Foundation.

Jewish Family Service in Michigan was one of 12 nonprofits around the country to win a monthly prize of $25,000 cash and another $5,000 in Home Depot gift cards from the Home Depot Foundation this past January. That win put them in the competition for the Aprons in Action contest that will give away a total of a half-million dollars in March. JFS plans to use the cash prize for its Project Build! program, which provides JFS clients with safe and barrier-free homes through pro bono repairs and renovations provided by local builders, remodelers and suppliers.

While many nonprofits in the Jewish community are still trying to find their way in the new world of social media, online contests like the Home Depot Foundation’s Aprons in Action have pushed nonprofit organizations to create a social media strategy to get out the vote on Facebook, the social networking site that boasts more than 850 million users.

Retail giants like Target and Home Depot, as well as large corporations like Toyota and Ford Motor Company, have drawn millions of Facebook users to their corporate and foundation “Fan Pages” through their online contests.

These crowd-raising initiatives have required nonprofits to familiarize themselves with such 21st-century terms as “social clout,” “social analytics,” “network amplification,” “true reach” and “social media influence.” Additionally, these nonprofits that compete in the contests have to quickly bolster their own online social identity to broadcast their participation in the contest. Many of these nonprofits are trying to raise their online presence on a shoestring budget, if they have allocated any marketing funds to social media at all.

In most cases, competing in such online contests is a gamble for the nonprofits because they don’t know what their return on investment will be, and they are allocating a lot of resources, including staff time, to the cause. JFS has recruited Jewish professionals and lay leaders in the community to reach out to their own networks to encourage daily voting on the Home Depot Foundation Facebook page during March. Local members of the Jewish community were asked to include reminders on their social networking sites and in email signatures. Some also participate in “post-a-thons,” where volunteers gather at a site and recruit voters via laptop postings. Additionally, JFS offered a daily email reminder service to increase its odds of securing the most votes.

“The Home Depot contest, as well as our success last summer at winning Toyota’s 100 Cars for Good competition, has made us aware that everything we do needs to have a social media layer,” explained Perry Ohren, CEO of JFS. “This has profound meaning in terms of our timing and our message. Timing has to be instantaneous and our message has to be short and engaging.”

One organization that has found much success in using its social reach to garner the votes needed to win online contests is Chabad Lubavitch. The international organization headquartered in Brooklyn exploits social networking not only to broadcast its message globally, but to also win financial grants. Chabad schools and service organizations, like the Friendship Circle, have used Facebook and Twitter to rack up hundreds of thousands of votes in national contests for six- figure grants by Chase Community Giving and Target Stores.

In a Facebook contest sponsored by Kohl’s Cares, 12 Jewish day schools in the U.S. finished in the top 20 of the competition, with 11 of those schools being Chabad-affiliated. Friendship Circle of Michigan, an organization dedicated to helping children with special needs, won $100,000 when it finished third in the Chase Community Giving Challenge on Facebook after using several social media tools to get out the vote.

Through these online contests, major corporations are able to donate funds to social service organizations, but it’s not completely altruistic. After all, the corporations are attracting a lot of attention to their brand. In the case of Home Depot, they are able to get thousands of people to visit their Facebook page each day for a month and look at their corporate logo, even if it is subliminal advertising. That is valuable advertising for the company and the half-million dollar investment is a small fraction of the retail giant’s more than $1 billion advertising budget.

Foundations for these large companies, like the Home Depot Foundation, have to make large charitable gifts each year so they figure they should at least help promote their corporate brand in the process.

Regardless of the motivation behind these online contests, it is certain that they have been the driving force in getting nonprofits to focus more on social media strategies. Hopefully, when there’s no large cash prize at the end of the rainbow, nonprofits will continue to utilize social media to promote theircause, raise awareness about their mission and solicit donations.

Originally published in the Detroit Jewish News and posted on the eJewishPhilanthropy.com blog

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

Networking At Its Best

The term networking gets used a lot and it can mean many different things. In the technology field, networking refers to a number of interconnected computers, machines, or operations. When it refers to people, it means a group of people who exchange information, contacts, and experience for professional or social purposes. This can be a support network, a social network, or a trade network.

Sometimes networking of the human variety occurs in a planned way and other times it is spontaneous. At a recent Jewish camp conference, I had the privilege of spontaneously networking with two really talented individuals. As the technology blogger for The Jewish Week’s website, I have the opportunity to collaborate with other Jewish Week writers, but it is always over the phone or via email. So, it was great to see Julie Wiener, The Jewish Week’s associate editor and columnist, in person at the conference. I hadn’t seen Julie in person since she was a staff writer for the Detroit Jewish News. Julie writes about Jewish education and intermarriage among a host of other topics. It was wonderful to discuss in person with Julie some of the interesting issues that she has covered in the paper recently.

Comic book creator and cartoonist Jordan Gorfinkel
Julie Wiener, a writer and the associate editor of The Jewish Week

A short while later I was speaking with Jordan Gorfinkel, whose comic strip “Everything’s Relative” is featured in the print edition of The Jewish Week. We were discussing The Jewish Week when Julie came over and I introduced them to each other. It’s funny how three people who all contribute to the same newspaper/website have never met in person. I guess that’s the nature of the world today. Julie and Jordan continued to talk after I left and what happened is a true example of networking in the best sense of the term. Here is Julie’s description of her collaboration with Jordan as she wrote about it in a Jewish Week article titled “Interfaith Families are Funny Too”:

I have a confession to make. For a long time, I’ve been unfairly dismissive of the “Everything’s Relative” comic strip that appears in this paper. 

Too kitschy, too Borscht Belt, too Orthodox, I felt. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but the majority of American Jews are not, in fact, Orthodox.) 

Then this week I met Jordan Gorfinkel, the artist behind “Everything’s Relative,” for the first time and discovered he is not only a nice guy, but is quite eager to incorporate fresh content, fresh perspectives and more diversity into the strip. He just wants suggestions.

So, dear reader, I promised to brainstorm some ways to help make the strip feel more contemporary and inclusive. I have some thoughts — but, in the spirit of inclusivity and big tents, I officially welcome your suggestions as well, either in the comments, via e-mail to me (julie.inthemix@gmail.com) or directly to Jordan (gorf@jewishcartoon.com).  

Here are some new characters I’d like to see: 

-An intermarried couple raising their children as Jews.
-A non-white Jew.
-A gay or lesbian Jew.
-A Russian or Israeli Jew.
-A Jew by choice (or better yet, a character who is going through the process of converting). 

Here are a few scenarios I’d like to see: 

-The intermarried couple grapples with competing expectations, stereotypes and misunderstandings from family members of each faith, revolving around the wedding, lifecycle events, holidays etc.
-The intermarried couple (or the convert-in-process) take a Judaism 101 class together.
-A character visits Israel for the first time on Birthright.
-A character becoming more religious and a character becoming less religious.
-A Hebrew school teacher or principal dealing with the joys and frustrations of trying to engage kids and their parents.
-Family members arguing about Israel, particularly its policies vis a vis the Palestinians.
-Family members arguing about the presidential election and whether or not to support President Barack Obama.

Now, that is what I call great collaboration. And serious networking!

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

Natan Sharansky and Soviet Jewry: A Look Back

Tuesday was the fourth time I heard Natan Sharansky speak. The second time I heard the former Prisoner of Zion speak was at Adat Shalom Synagogue not long after my bar mitzvah. I was still wearing the silver bracelet with the name of my bar mitzvah twin from the Soviet Union. The last two times I heard Sharansky speak were at an AIPAC lunch for rabbis in D.C. in 2008 and at this week’s Foundation for Jewish Camp conference in New Jersey. None of those three speeches even remotely compared to the first time I heard him speak.

Natan Sharansky speaks at the 2012 Foundation for Jewish Camp Leaders Assembly

It was Sunday, December 6, 1987. I was a 6th grade Jewish day school student and traveled with my mother aboard a chartered flight from Detroit to Washington. The late David Hermelin led the plane in singing for the entirety of the flight. Our Detroit delegation filled two planes and we were among the throngs of people who congregated on the National Mall to call for immediate mass emigration for Jewish refuseniks out of the Soviet Union.

Wearing a cheap white painter’s hat that read “Let My People Go” and eating my bagel and lox breakfast donated by Detroit philanthropist and supermarket owner Paul Borman, I marched from the Washington Monument to the Capitol Building singing “Hinei Mah Tov.” I remember hearing Vice President George Bush and Elie Wiesel speak. But the moment I will never forget is when Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky came to the dais to address his 250,000 supporters. It was impossible to decipher exactly what he was saying in his broken English, but I knew that he had spent years in prison and was now a free man on a mission. I remembered singing the words to the Safam song at my 5th grade Zimriyah, “They call me Anatoly. In prison I did lie. My little window looked out on the Russian sky.”

With Natan Sharansky in 2008

On Tuesday, as I listened to him speak about the immense growth of Jewish camping in the Former Soviet Union, I was taken aback by how far Sharansky has come since that cold December Sunday in 1987. Within 25 years, he has not only transitioned from the life of a prisoner to a free man, but he has seen and done so much. He made aliyah to Israel on the day he left his Soviet prison cell and then became the de facto leader of the Russian immigrant community in Israel, winning election to the Knesset after forming the Yisrael BaAliyah party. He published his memoirs, defeated Russian chess champion Garry Kasparov, and is now the Chair of the Executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

It is truly remarkable how Sharansky has ascended to leadership in a quarter century, but it is part of the larger story about Russian Jewry. It is a success story. There are large, successful Russian Jewish communities in Israel and throughout the United States (and in the FSU and Germany). There are campus Hillels throughout the FSU, Jewish summer camps are at full capacity in Russia and Ukraine with Jewish campers who learn they are Jewish only days before camp begins. Jewish synagogues of all denominations and community centers have sprung up everywhere in the FSU. There are Russian Jews who are leading the world in the sciences, in business and in medicine. Without a Russian Jew, we would have no Google (Sergei Brin) or PayPal.com (Max Levchin). Five Russian Jews have won a Nobel Prize since 1990. Yuri Foreman is a boxing world champion. There have been Russian Jews in the National Hockey League (Max Birbraer) and in the National Football League (Igor Olshansky). Their story is nothing short of miraculous.

With Natan Sharansky in 2012

Jewish students who graduated college last spring were born after the fall of Communism. They have no memory of the fight for Soviet Jewry. They don’t know about bar mitzvah twinning with Russian teens or the stories of smuggling Jewish books and matzah into the Soviet Union. They don’t know about adding a fifth question on Passover asking when will all Jews be free or leaving an empty seat at the Seder for the Soviet Jews who couldn’t celebrate the holiday.

As I sat listening to Natan Sharansky on Tuesday, a friend and I reminisced about writing letters to President Reagan on behalf of our Soviet Refusenik brothers and to our Russian pen pals who weren’t allowed to learn Hebrew or sing Jewish songs. Twenty five years after that memorable march for Soviet Jewry in Washington, it is imperative we keep telling that story and I am grateful to Natan Sharansky for keeping his story alive after these many years.

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

Israeli President Shimon Peres Wants Friends

At no point in history was the Hebrew word for “friend” more popular than after President Bill Clinton uttered those two famous words as he eulogized his assassinated friend, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Jerusalem in 1995. “Shalom Chaver” quickly became a famous slogan and bumper sticker quote.

Now, one man who was Yitzhak Rabin’s friend, colleague and peace partner is campaigning for chaverim, friends. Not real friends, but Facebook fans. On the same day he delivered a very well-received speech to close to 13,000 pro-Israel supporters at AIPAC Policy Conference on Sunday, Israeli President Shimon Peres launched his new Facebook page.

President Peres has had a very good week. After AIPAC honored the 88-year-old leader on Sunday for his storied career in Israeli politics and for his lasting commitment to peace, he met privately with President Obama. During his AIPAC appearance Peres found a very supportive audience who saluted him with many standing ovations. All this week Shimon Peres has been on a tour of the Bay Area where he’s meeting with hi-tech leaders of Silicon Valley.

His California itinerary includes meetings with leading venture capitalists, as well as with Google co-founder Sergey Brin and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. During his meeting with the Facebook founder, President Peres launched his official personal page on the Facebook site. While Peres might not be the first 88-year-old with a Facebook account, he is the first one whose chief agenda is to use his Facebook page to create a dialogue with Arabs who live in countries that do not have diplomatic ties with Israel.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg interviewed the Israeli President about his Facebook ambitions and he explained,  “The matter of peace is no longer the business of governments but the business of people. Today the people are governing the governments. And when they begin to talk to each other, they are surprised: We should be friends.”

So, how he is Shimon Peres seeking to make friends on the social networking site? Rather than giving away a free iPad as many businesses do when they launch a new Facebook page, Peres released a new YouTube music video (see below) asking everyone to be his friend on Facebook in the name of peace. The video was launched last Sunday as Peres was speaking at AIPAC. I’m certain this video will go viral because, well, the sight of an 88-year-old rock star who happens to be the president of the Jewish state is “must see TV.” Peres, with his iconic deep Israeli accent, has become a beloved father figure to the Israeli people. It is remarkable to see him so eager to exploit social media in the name of forging a lasting peace in the Middle East. I wish him well… and I hope that he gets a lot of friends to join him on Facebook.

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

Purim 2012 (A Nuclear Shushan)

Here is my annual Purim Edition…

Headline: Iran Defeats Israel at Oscars; Kim Jong Il’s Ashes Defeat Seacrest
Iran beat Israel in the Foreign Language category at the Oscars this month, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reminded the Iranians what happened in Iran (née Persia/Shushan) at the end of the Purim story when Haman thought he was a big winner too. In other Academy Awards news, Sacha Baron Cohen’s wife Isla Fisher is reportedly upset that her husband took pancake mix out of the couple’s pantry without asking her first. Baron Cohen, as his character from the movie The Dictator, threw the pancake mix at Ryan Seacrest claiming it was the late Kim Jong Il’s ashes. In an odd twist of fate, Baron Cohen is now sleeping on Seacrest’s couch (and making him pancakes for breakfast each morning).

Headline: Braun Was Juicing, But Not Like That
Ryan Braun claims the whole juicing allegation was just a Shabbat Kiddush misunderstanding. The Milwaukee Brewers all-star admits that he was juicing, but only because he was asked to say the blessing at his cousin’s bar mitzvah.

Headline: Limbaugh Erroneously Claims Jewish Support
Right-wing radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh mistakenly thought that Jews were overwhelmingly supporting him after he heard loud singing emanating from a local synagogue on the Purim holiday: “Hava Narisha Rush Rush Rush!!” he heard them singing enthusiastically.

Headline: Trump Brand to Include Purim Pastries and Passover Vodka
For Jewish people who already enjoy Trump hotels, Trump golf courses, Trump reality TV shows, and Trump beauty pageants, you can now enjoy the Trump brand when it comes to Jewish holidays too. The Donald’s daughter Ivanka Trump, who converted to Judaism, recently tweeted her own hamantashen recipe along with photos of her delicious looking triangular pastries. And if you need a drink to wash those hamantashen down, there’s always the Donald Trump brand vodka, which will now be kosher for Passover! No word yet on what Trump is planning for Shavuot (“Billionaire Blintzes” perhaps?).


Happy Purim!

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

Chuck Schumer Had Leon Panetta Say Shema

All of the speeches at the AIPAC Policy Conference during the past few days went according to script. Every U.S. politician who addressed the 13,000 in attendance weighed in on the threat of a nuclear Iran, enumerated their party’s accomplishments in defending Israel, and reiterated their commitment to the U.S.-Israel relationship. But there was one surprise.

On the final morning of the AIPAC conference, the U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta discussed his close personal friendship with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and the family dinners they have shared (“We talk, we argue, we eat… we are family”). He also recalled accompanying President Bill Clinton to Israel for the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. Panetta also disclosed that the first congratulations he received after the successful capture of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan were from his buddies in the Israeli Mossad.

And then Secretary Panetta mentioned the little known fact that he and Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York were once roommates when they both served in the House during the 1980’s and early 1990’s. That wasn’t the surprise though since Schumer has, on several occasions, reminisced about rooming with Panetta and other congressmen in a shared house. The surprising tidbit came when Panetta shared that he and Schumer bunked together in the living room of the house and before bed each night Schumer would get Panetta to say the Bedtime Shema.

Panetta deadpanned toward the end of his speech, “Each night before we went to bed he made me say the Shema… but I probably just said a Hail Mary!”

I was never aware that there is a custom of Jews getting non-Jews to say the Shema. I wrote about Justin Bieber’s manager Scooter Braun getting him in the habit of reciting the Shema before each concert and now this. I’m curious to know which other non-Jews out there are saying the Shema. This might just become a trend.

Here’s video of Chuck Schumer reminiscing about his former roommate Leon Panetta:

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