I wasn’t around 2,000 years ago when my people’s Temple was destroyed and thousands perished.
But, I am around today and that is why I will take the time to honor those who lost their lives in that tragedy.
Today begins the Summer Olympics in London. It is a longstanding tradition marked by 17 days of athletic competition among nations.
I wasn’t around 40 years ago when 11 Israeli men lost their lives at the Summer Olympics in Munich.
But, I am around today and that is why I will take the time to honor those who lost their lives in that tragedy.
Shame on the International Olympic Committee for not recognizing the importance of memorializing this tragedy. Please take a minute today during the Opening Ceremonies to remember The Munich 11.
Rabbi Daniel Nevins, a Conservative rabbi who is the dean of the rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and the former rabbi of Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills, recently published a *teshuva (religious response) regarding the use of electrical and electronic devices on the Shabbat.
In the teshuva, which was passed overwhelmingly by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS), Nevins ultimately ruled that while the operation of electrical circuits is not inherently forbidden according to the laws of Shabbat, the use of electricity to power an appliance which performs melacha (the category of forbidden activity on Shabbat) with the same mechanism and intent as the original manual labor is forbidden in the Torah. Nevins answered some questions about his research and how he arrived at his legal decision:
I’ve been thinking about electricity and Shabbat for decades actually; since I really began observing Shabbat. I started researching the halachic [Jewish legal] issues involved and I found that there may have been a consensus in the Orthodox world that no electricity was allowed and yet there was no sense about why. It was worth clarifying what the considerations were. In recent years, I’ve come to feel that technology has become integrated in a rapidly accelerating fashion in our personal lives and the lack of clarity about the halachic issues were creating a bit of chaos in people’s understanding of what the laws of Shabbat have to say about electronics, and moreover, what the culture of Shabbat should be.
How do the issues of electronics use on Shabbat affect you personally?
I’m a parent of three teenagers and creating policies for our family that protect the special atmosphere of Shabbat so that we’d have one day to look at each other in the eyes and not constantly be looking down at glowing screens. That was part of the motivation, which I think is shared by many families that are trying to preserve some element of intentional family time which is not distracted by all the other devices that constantly call our thoughts away.
When you started writing this teshuva, which electronic devices did you have in mind?
Certainly computers and cell phones were significant; those are probably the most important ones I was thinking about. The iPad wasn’t out yet. I did begin thinking about the Amazon Kindle fairly early in the process, but I had not yet focused on one specific brand. I tried to focus less on the brand names than on the technology.
What was your intended outcome in writing this? Were you trying to make Shabbat easier for people?
I will say that I’m not looking for stringencies in life. But I do look for integrities and interpretations of practice. So, if my study had led me to the conclusion that there is no issue with use of an e-reader, then I would have been comfortable coming to that conclusion. But, as I say in the paper, I was actually in a way almost looking for such a thing because I’m concerned that, increasingly, digital media may be the only way to access written content. As I said in a CJLS meeting, reading is a significant part of the culture of Shabbat, so if we got to the point where the only way to read new content was by some sort of electronic or digital medium then we would really lose something with Shabbat. So I’m concerned about that and I described these issues a few years ago in an article in The Atlantic titled “People of the E-book.”
So, what happens in the future if the only way to read a book really is electronically?
If the only way to read a book on Shabbat is on the Kindle, then I would say we need to come up with ways for the Kindle to be operated without downloading new content or creating permanent records. If there’s a will there’s a way technologically, not just halachically.
Where there’s a halachic will there’s a halachic way?
I’m not so comfortable with that statement. Where there’s a halachic will, then there’s also a halachic way. If you’re committed to the integrity of religious practice then at some point the answer’s going to be “no.”
Would your teshuva be categorized as meta-halachic since you’re not halachically opposed to electricity on Shabbat? You’re prescribing a break from the workweek, so how is this teshuva different from the various ‘un-plugged’ campaigns and Sabbath Manifesto?
Well, I’ve spent dozens of pages working on halachic sources and making conclusions for halachic reasons. Meta-halacha implies there’s something outside of the halacha; an external body, but that’s the opposite of my belief.
Describe the difference between an electric sink or automatic door and using an Amazon Kindle or an iPad on Shabbat.
Electronic devices are embedded everywhere, making it almost impossible to avoid electronic interaction. That’s the core of my paper. The difference that I see between those two is that motion detectors that open doors and turn off taps and lights do not leave any permanent record. I understand melacha to be about transforming material. A Kindle, which downloads information from the Internet and also tracks usage so that it knows where a reader is and where they left off, seems to be to be more akin to writing and therefore involves a transformation of material of reality. For that reason, I think use of a Kindle and other electronics as being prohibited under the category of kotev, of writing.
Radio, television, and computers have been around for a while. Why now, with the proliferation of Smartphones, tablets, and e-readers are you bringing this up?
Well, already 60 years ago Rabbi Arthur Neulander began talking about the use of electronics and I quote him in the paper and basically agree with him. He discussed TV and radio, not computers at that time in the 1950s. I basically think that turning on a television and turning on a radio do not involve writing and therefore are not prohibited as forms of melacha. However, I question whether they are appropriate to the atmosphere of Shabbat, which we call sh’vut, in terms of resting. Computers I believe do involve downloading content, even without the user being aware of it. Every time you browse to a new web page you’re downloading information, you’re sending cookies, and you’re doing all sorts of processes which you’re not thinking about. Part of Shabbat is getting people to think more about the impact of their behavior. On Shabbat, as I say in the paper, we try to emphasize personal interaction. Our digital technology isolates us from the people around us. And therefore it defeats part of the purpose of Shabbat.
What about some exceptions to the rule?
Let’s say someone is disabled and the only way of reading is through a Kindle that enlarges type, then you might say that their human dignity would supersede the general level to use electronics.
Any thoughts on what’s become known as the “Half-Shabbos” in the Orthodox community, when observant teenagers will text their friends on Shabbat, but otherwise observe the laws?
I address this in the footnotes. The “Half-Shabbos” phenomenon is testimony to the great allure of digital media, but I feel that this makes us realize that it’s distracting. And I would say to teens, davka [precisely] don’t text on Shabbat. Talk to people. Make eye contact.
What about for Jews who are living in isolation who are lonely on Shabbat?
Okay, you’re in Alaska, you’re on an army base, and you’re the only Jew on the base… I can understand the desire to interact with others. But still, texting involves writing so therefore I think it’s forbidden.
What about competing values? For example, a Jewish person in an area with no community wants to watch a live stream of Shabbat services or wants to study Torah with a friend on Skype during Shabbat afternoon.
I also talk about these issues in the paper. Certainly the motivation to participate in a community is very strong, and should be respected. If there’s a way to participate without violating the prohibition on writing, then I would be sympathetic to it. But, it’s a bit of a slippery slope. Once you’re using your computer and using your TV, then you might use it for other things as well.
Aren’t these gadgets just a way of life and Jewish law has to adapt?
Yes, that’s true, but we need vacations from routines now and then and Shabbat is about challenging us to change our routine one day a week and experience life a bit differently.
How does one define “Shomer Shabbat” [Sabbath observant] today?
A person trying to be “Shomer Shabbat” is committed to differentiating Shabbat from the workweek by abstaining from certain activities and engaging in other activities that are specific to Shabbat. As I say in the paper, we desist from melacha and some other activities which detract from the tranquility of the day. We engage in activities like eating, sleeping, praying and studying. That makes the day sort of an image of an ideal world; the experience of an ideal world.
Jewish law evolves and the halachic system progresses, so doesn’t this teshuva keep the system from adapting to technological innovation?
I think it’s the opposite. I think it engages with the reality of digital culture – its attraction, its usefulness, and its negative consequences. This paper tries to take the feel of Shabbat and apply it to the digital age that we’re living in. For good and for bad.
How will you help young people access your teshuva and apply your prescriptions to their technology-dominated lives?
I’m working on a curriculum for Ramah camps, Schechter day schools and USY [Conservative movement’s youth agency]. You don’t do something like this without the intention of teaching it to people who aren’t going to read a 60-page paper.
Finally, would it be ironic if someone read your teshuva on their iPad on Shabbat afternoon?
Yes (laughs). I’ve told people not to read my paper on the Kindle because that would be ironic. I don’t believe that we’ve come to the final chapter in this. In the paper I explained that as technology continues to evolve, we’ll gain new insights. It may be that in the future there may be a way to use e-readers on Shabbat without violating the concerns I raise in this paper, and I would like that.
*The complete teshuva can be accessed at http://jewi.sh/nevins
Originally published in the Detroit Jewish News and cross-posted to the Jewish Techs blog at The Jewish Week.
On Wednesday night, Rabbi David Krishef, a Conservative rabbi in Grand Rapids, Michigan, did what any father would do. He advocated on behalf of his son. Rabbi Krishef published a long exposé on his blog that detailed what his family had endured over the past few days after being told that his 16-year-old son Solomon, who is blind, would not be able to spend the second part of the summer at camp. The reason the new camp director at Camp Ramah in Canada gave for this decision was that Solomon required more assistance from the camp’s staff members than the camp could adequately provide. The bottom line was that the camp could no longer effectively accommodate a camper like Solomon, even though he had spent several successful summers at the camp in previous years.
|Photo on Camp Ramah in Canada’s website of Solomon Krishef with a staff member|
Rabbi Krishef’s blog post went viral. Well, at least in the Jewish community it did. Several people (myself included) posted a link to the blog post on Facebook and watched as dozens of people commented about this travesty and dozens more shared the link on their own Facebook pages. In the end, the camp director reversed his decision welcoming Solomon back to camp, although the 16-year-old blind teen weighed the decision and ultimately determined that after all the commotion he would not return for the remainder of the summer.
Of course there is probably much more to the story than what Rabbi Krishef blogged about. The camp director didn’t make his decision in a vacuum and it must have been a difficult decision to come to. But it raises several important issues about summer camp and keeping the publicity about camp positive.
The most important rule about summer camp is that the campers are safe and having fun. Solomon’s safety was not compromised. The camp director said the blind teen took too long at meals and in the shower and there wasn’t ample staff coverage to assist him. These problems can easily be remedied. Mistakes were clearly made and there was poor “customer service” coming from the camp.
I felt bad sharing Solomon’s plight when I posted the link to Rabbi Krishef’s blog on my Facebook page because I knew it would have negative consequences for this Ramah camp and the new director. [Full disclosure: In 2005 I served as Rabbi-in-Residence at Camp Ramah in Canada, and my friend was suddenly and unfairly released of his duties as director last year.]
The lesson in this is that every camp director needs to realize what it means to be in the customer service industry. Like any business, camps need to advance and be innovative. The leadership also must recognize the power of social media in the 21st century. Social media reigns king and that means that if a customer isn’t happy with their service at Best Buy or Starbucks, they will take their rant to the social networks where it will be “liked,” commented on and shared across other networks exponentially. As demonstrated by the angry father of a blind teen with a blog, this is also the case at Jewish summer camp.
Jewish summer camp means Jewish parents. While it may be fair to describe some of these parents as neurotic, the fact remains that all Jewish parents care deeply about the livelihood of their children. That means that they want their children to all feel special, safe and secure while at camp. No parents want to hear that the camp can’t accommodate their child for any reason.
Today is the first day of the new month of Av according to the Hebrew calendar. It is the beginning of a period of mourning for the Jewish people as we recall the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. In fact, this Hebrew month is often called “Menachem Av” because we desire comfort during this sad period. Camp Ramah in Canada will also require menachem as it deals with this matter internally and externally (a petition was signed by campers and staff appealing to the director to let Solomon stay).
I’m glad that the camp director reversed his decision and apologized to Solomon and the Krishef family. That was a good resolution. But the lesson has to be learned. In the 21st century, it is not enough for a camp to have a program for special needs children and teens. It must seek to accommodate all children and help them feel safe and happy at camp. Camp directors must lead by example and always seek to do good and to make wise decisions. They must try to always accommodate.
It is often said that a parent is only as happy as his saddest child. So too it is for summer camp directors. Try to keep all your kids as “happy campers” and the camp will be a happy place too.
I have wonderful memories of my bar mitzvah. I was a “day school kid,” so I had that going for me when it came to grasping the Hebrew verses I’d have to chant from the Torah. But on the negative side, I couldn’t carry a tune if my life depended on it; and to make matters worse, I had that awkward “going through puberty” voice thing going on.
My bar mitzvah party was fun and everyone seemed to have a great time, but the memory that sticks with me almost 23 years later is the Shabbat dinner the night before for close family and friends that my aunt put together. My aunt and uncle had just moved into a beautiful new home, and the Friday night dinner for close friends and family would be their first opportunity (of hundreds) to play gracious hosts.
To this day, I remember that my aunt went above-and-beyond (and then even further beyond) to prepare a delicious dinner. Her house looked immaculate. Everyone enjoyed themselves.
For me, more important than the food or the centerpieces that made her newly decorated dining room look so fancy was that I felt so relaxed in her home. I won’t go on record on the Web by admitting that my uncle likely snuck me a drink, but I do remember feeling peaceful and unstressed that night. While many 13-year-old boys experience butterflies in the stomach on the night before their bar mitzvah, I have a vivid recollection of having felt ready for the next day and able to just enjoy the evening at my aunt and uncle’s home.
Many people had important roles to play with the success of my bar mitzvah. My parents planned a wonderful celebration that Saturday night. My grandparents hosted everyone for lunch back at their home following the synagogue services. The rabbis and cantor all were integral to my entry into Jewish adulthood. But to this day, I feel like my aunt was the unsung hero of that memorable weekend. Six years later my aunt reprised the role of Friday night dinner hostess before my brother’s bar mitzvah. Like me, he too felt relaxed the night before his big day.
At a bar or bat mitzvah there’s a special blessing said by the parents as they mark the transition of their child into a more responsible individual. Additionally, the parents and grandparents offer a blessing of gratitude for reaching such a milestone. I’d like to suggest a special blessing for the Savvy Auntie of the bar or bat mitzvah. The aunt who makes sure the bar mitzvah boy’s tie is straight before he stands before hundreds to read from the Torah. The aunt who makes sure her niece’s hair is just right before her party. A blessing for the aunt who is ready with a needle and thread to fix a rip in the suit pants. For the aunt who has a wet cloth to remove a stain. For the aunt who lovingly opens her home for a relaxing evening before the big event.
May God who blessed our ancestors bless my beloved aunt who is often the unsung hero. She is there to nurture and to love. Thank you, God, for the gift of aunts who, together with parents, grandparents, teachers and friends, play a significant role in my life and in my upbringing.
And let us say, Amen.
I still remember back in 1990 when Cecil Fielder (a Detroit Tigers All-Star 1st baseman like his son is today) was the favorite to win the All-Star Game Home Run Derby. Competing against the likes of Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire and Ken Griffey, Jr., Cecil failed to hit even one homer in the contest that night. This week, Prince Fielder became the first player ever to win the Home Run Derby in both leagues (he won in 2009 as a Milwaukee Brewer too).
There’s no question that Prince Fielder inherited the gift of hitting the long ball from his father. This week’s Torah Portion, Parshat Pinchas, is all about inheritance and succession. Moses was an impressive leader of the Jewish people in the desert as they made their journey to Israel. This week, however, we learn that Moses will not lead the Israelites into the Promised Land. Although he has worked tirelessly to be a great leader and inspirational figure, his career will end before the reward of entering the land with his people.
Cecil Fielder led the Detroit Tigers in the early 1990s, but didn’t succeed in taking his team all the way to the “Promised Land” of Major League Baseball — the World Series. Cecil Fielder’s numbers with the Tigers are impressive. On the last day of the Tigers’ season in 1990, Cecil hit his 50th and 51st home runs to become the 11th player in ML history to hit 50 homers in a season. But baseball is a team sport and while individual achievement is recorded into the annals of baseball history and celebrated, the ultimate reward is winning the World Series.
And that’s where inheritance and succession factor in. Moses wasn’t permitted the merit of taking his team, the Israelites, into the Promised Land. However, his inheritance was bequeathed to Joshua who would succeed Moses as the leader of the people. Joshua understood his role and he gave honor and respect to his predecessor. Without Moses there is no Joshua. That is how inheritance and succession work. Moses laid the groundwork and Joshua was able to complete the task.
I thought of the Moses-Joshua relationship and the Torah’s concept of inheritance and succession as I watched Prince Fielder hoist his Home Run Derby trophy high above his head. His sons flanked him on either side. His father was no where in sight. It is from his father that Prince has acquired the awesome ability to use a wooden bat and hit a small ball to distances surpassing 450 feet. Cecil wasn’t able to take his team into the Promised Land, but his progeny might be the leader to do it. Prince has that inheritance. He succeeds his father as the home run slugging first baseman who can lead his people to victory.
|With Prince Fielder at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Phoenix in 2007.|
Seeing Cecil Fielder proudly standing next to his son and two grandsons Tuesday night would have made that photo even better. But there’s a fractured relationship between the father and the son. No one knows for certain why Prince and Cecil don’t talk, but the dynamics of a father-son relationship can be complicated. Perhaps the complexities of the mother-daughter relationship are better documented, but they are no more challenging.
For Prince, it might have been difficult growing up as the son of the local baseball hero. For Cecil, it might be difficult watching his son succeed where he came up short in his own career. The strained relationship between Prince Fielder and his dad is rumored to be about money. After Cecil declared bankruptcy following a failed marriage, gambling debts, and poor real estate investment deals, there’s word that he took part of his son’s signing bonus with the Milwaukee Brewers. Whatever the case, life is too short to harp on such things. Reports indicate that Cecil might have taken $200,000 of his son’s $2.4 million signing bonus back in 2002. Prince Fielder’s current contract with the Detroit Tigers is for nine-years and a total of $214 million. That $200,000 a decade ago is meaningless today.
Earlier this year Cecil had some critical words to say about his son. “As a father, of course you’re proud of what your son’s been able to accomplish on the field, but as a father also you worry about how he is growing as a man, how — I want to say this correctly –how he is communicating with everybody that had something to do with how he got to where he is. And that part of my son, I think we’re all a little disappointed.”
After Prince signed with the Tigers this year, both Cecil and Prince have been quoted as saying the relationship has gotten a little better. And that’s good. As Mitch Albom wrote after Opening Day this past April:
Cecil Fielder always will be a part of Detroit sports history, just as his son now will make his own name in it. It does seem sad that the father watched the game alone in Atlanta, while the son played in Detroit. But that is between them. “I’ll get up there to see a game,” Cecil said before hanging up. “It’ll all work out. Just needs time.”
Indeed, it is between them. The father and the son. The succession of leadership and the inheritance of that big swing. I remain hopeful that both men will let bygones be bygones and move forward. Cecil’s pride should come from watching his son do what he was not able to in a Tigers’ uniform. And Prince’s respect and admiration for his father should come from an appreciation for the legacy that Cecil left as a Detroit Tiger and for the talent his father has bequeathed to him as his inheritance.
At the end of a McDonald’s commercial (below) featuring Cecil and Prince Fielder that aired in Detroit back in the 1990s, Prince looks up at his dad and apologizes for striking him out. Cecil looks down at his son with pride and says, “Oh, that’s okay son.” Maybe the two men will exchange similar words in the near future. So, while I wish Cecil was part of that awesome photo op on Tuesday night at the Home Run Derby, I’m willing to hold out to see the father celebrate with his son at a future trophy presentation. They deserve each other.
Jewish Ex-Detroiters like myself have a religious attachement [sic] to our hometown. We have a tight-knit Jewish community, allegiance to local sports teams, and favorite bakeries, cafes, or delis. (Notice the absence of any allegiance to a synagogue or temple). When we leave Detroit, we leave close family back home – grandparents, aunts and uncles, parents, siblings and cousins. We get back for family events when we can. We try to keep up with the Tigers or Pistons. We root for U of M at the Rose Bowl. We often are connected to other Detroiters who made the move out here before us.
The Jews who left West Bloomfield, Birmingham, Southfield, or Bloomfield Hills, left for the greener pastures of Hollywoodland. Most are going to stay and put down roots. My Detroiter street cred: Zeemans [sic], Hillel Day School, Cranbrook, grandma at The Heritage, Tigers, Camp Tavor – I won’t mention the Synagogue.
I appreciated Rabbi Yonah’s honesty in that post and I let him know it. But I also made certain to inform him that Jewish Detroit was making a comeback and it was legit. Since that time almost 4 years ago, we’ve maintained a nice relationship through our blogs, projects, and Twitter. We regularly shmooze (virtually of course) about Detroit sports, and he will often ask me to weigh in on certain Detroit-specific issues.
The local Jewish newspaper, the Detroit Jewish News, often features young Jewish leaders who have returned to Detroit. I thought it would be interesting to look at someone like Rabbi Yonah with Detroit roots and no intention to return to Detroit, but an unwavering attachment to his hometown. So, two months ago I sent an email to the publisher and editor of the Detroit Jewish News: “Did you know Rabbi Yonah Bookstein is from Detroit and went to Cranbrook? He’s the guy behind Jewlicious. Might make for an interesting article. Maybe Robin Schwartz?”
Robin Schwartz’s story about Rabbi Yonah and his Detroit roots is featured on the cover of this week’s issue. Here it is:
Rabbi Yonah Bookstein recalls picking up a guitar for the first time at age 10, in the late 1970s, as a Hillel Day School student growing up in Detroit’s Palmer Woods neighborhood.
His late father, Marvin Bookstein — a bluegrass musician who played six different instruments — taught young Yonah the fundamentals, opening his eyes and ears to the beauty and power of music. He spent his early years attending concerts, going to Detroit’s Orchestra Hall, and attending chamber music festivals; so it’s fitting that Bookstein, now 42, of Los Angeles is the force behind Jewlicious. The nonprofit organization hosts hip seasonal music festivals in California that attract hundreds of young Jews from across the country.
“Music unifies and inspires people,” Bookstein says. “One of the reasons I got so into creating musical events is that music was an integral part of my life as a child.”
Bookstein’s family has deep roots in Metro Detroit. His father, grandfather and greatgrandfather all owned Ace Furniture Co.; the decades-old family business was sold in 1979. Bookstein attended high school and graduated from Cranbrook Schools in Bloomfield Hills. He was active in the Jewish Socialist-Zionist youth movement Habonim Dror and spent summers at its Camp Tavor near Kalamazoo.
Bookstein left town to attend the University of Oregon and Oxford University, was ordained by Ohr Somayach Yeshiva in New York and is a former Fulbright Fellow to Poland. In the 1990s, he and his wife, Rachel, worked for the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation in Poland. They founded Jewish youth centers in Krakow and Lodz, revived the Jewish Community Center in Warsaw, established the annual Warsaw Jewish Book Festival and created a center for adult Jewish education. Since returning to the United States, Bookstein’s focus has been uniting and inspiring young Jews across the country, first as a campus rabbi and now as director of Jewlicious. He has four children: Moshe, 13, Sophia, 11, Shlomo, 9, and Naftali, 5.
“I believe passionately in the Jewish future, and young people are the inspiration,” he says. “Our overall goal is to increase participation in Jewish life.”
The concept of Jewlicious was created in a garage in Long Beach, Calif., in 2005. The first festival attracted about 100 people, and the crowds have grown bigger and bigger each year. One event is held each summer; a second festival takes place each winter on an old cruise ship.
“It’s a mash up of a music festival and a conference, and it has about 90 programs over the course of three days,” Bookstein explains. “Everything from Jewish yoga to conversations with famous Jewish actors — it’s a pluralistic weekend with all kinds of offerings.
Tickets are currently on sale for the third annual SummerFest Music and Summer Camp Festival Aug. 16-19 in Brandeis, Calif., which has been described as “Jewish summer camp for grownups.” The event includes concerts, speakers, horseback riding, rock climbing, midnight hikes, bonfires, swimming, yoga, wine and pickle making, and more.
“We get people from 20 states and 50 colleges and universities,” Bookstein says. “It’s a really amazing pilgrimage.” Tickets range from $60-$175 for the weekend.
Participants can camp out or pay more for a room in a bunk or cottage. Right now, these events only take place in California, but Bookstein’s goal is to take the show on the road and host Jewlicious Festivals across the country. He already creates Shabbat hospitality tents at national music festivals. He’s also a member of the band Shankbone, which performs Jewish and Indie music a few times a year.
“Young people love festivals, and they love music,” he says. “We’ve created this platform, and it really could be replicated all over the country.
“I know Detroit because I grew up there. The Jewish community in Detroit has always been more cohesive, but in other places there’s a huge amount of assimilation. There’s an unengaged population of young Jews.
We’re only tipping the scales somewhat; there are so many people to reach and so many people to engage. It’s a huge undertaking.”
Bookstein relies heavily on social media to get his message out. His Jewlicious.com blog is said to be the Internet’s most-read Jewish blog. He also has podcast classes on Judaism on iTunes, more than 5,000 “friends” on Facebook and more than 8,000 followers on Twitter. In 2009, he was the top vote-getter in the Jewish Federation of North America’s inaugural Jewish Community Heroes Award, receiving more than 90,000 online votes.
“I’ve made it my focus to connect with young people,” Bookstein says. “If I want to be relevant and reach the constituency I believe is so critical to our future, I need to be engaged in social media on a daily and hourly basis.”
Rabbi Jason Miller, a local Jewish leader, entrepreneur and president of Access Computer Technology in West Bloomfield, follows Bookstein on the Web. Miller has his own blog, RabbiJason.com, and thousands of Facebook and Twitter followers. He believes the “traditional borders of the global Jewish community have disappeared through globalization and new technology.” The two rabbis are in regular communication online, but have not yet met in person.
“Yonah is one of these Jewish thought leaders of the social media age,” Miller says. “I read his blog regularly, and we mutually re-post and ‘retweet’ each other’s content because we run in the same social media circles. Yonah has an immense Twitter following and strong social clout, but it’s the way he uses those to push the boundaries of the ‘Jewish establishment’ that has really earned my respect. Not only is he a change agent helping the Israeli and Diaspora communities to think outside the box, but he also exudes a contagious form of excitement and optimism. I hope to meet him IRL (in real life) soon.”
Rabbi Bookstein tries to get back to Michigan at least once a year to visit friends and family members. Last summer, he brought his friend, Chasidic reggae singer Matisyahu, to the Motor City Moishe House in Detroit. The communal home for young adults offers subsidized housing and is meant to breathe new Jewish life into the city. At least 50 people showed up to meet Matisyahu and share a kosher meal before his concert at St. Andrews Hall.
After the visit, Bookstein wrote an article for the Jewish Journal in Los Angeles. In part, it reads: “When I was growing up in Detroit in the 1970s and ’80s, the notion that Jews would return to the city — literally the areas of old Detroit that housed the core of the community for a hundred years — was a remote fantasy. The community had been moving to the suburbs since the 1950s… However, Detroit’s Jewish community, who live almost entirely in the suburbs, is not ready to give up on a city that has such a rich and vibrant Jewish past.”
Just as Detroit is trying to revitalize and reinvigorate Jewish life locally, Bookstein is working to generate excitement and increase participation among young Jews nationwide. Jewlicious is attempting to win a Chase and LivingSocial grant of $250,000 through an online contest to further Bookstein’s efforts.
“Like everybody in the nonprofit sector, it’s challenging to fund these programs and meet the financial demands of creating these kinds of opportunities for young adults,” he says. “[Young Jews] care about their Jewish future and want to be a part of it. Business is booming. There’s a huge demand for what we do.”
While Rabbi Yonah might not be planning on a return to his hometown of Detroit, it is important for Detroiters to know that such an important figure who is making the future of American Jewry fun and exciting and vibrant got his start here. Deep down he wants to see the Jewish community of Detroit succeed and he has much insight to offer. I’m glad that Robin’s article will bring Rabbi Yonah and his energy a little closer to home.
My mother isn’t/wasn’t Jewish, my father is. I was raised Reform, had a Bat mitzvah, [was Jewishly educated, celebrated holidays, identify as Jewish, participated in the Jewish community, did not participate in or celebrate any other faith or religion,] etc. If I have children with a man recognized as fully Jewish, how would they be seen in the eyes of Israel and the American Jewish community (particularly the Conservative movement)? How stable are Israel’s laws around this — could they change in 10 years? What about Halachah (Jewish law)? I would really appreciate an answer, even if it’s not what I want to hear. Thank you!
This is the question I was presented with from the website Jewish Values Online. Over the past few years I have answered dozens of values-based questions from this website. I haven’t dodged a single question, and I’ve attempted to respond to each questioner in a timely fashion. Admittedly, I have procrastinated writing a response to this question for several months.
Why? Because I am a Conservative rabbi and this is perhaps the most challenging question that a Conservative rabbi can be asked in the beginning of the 21st century. My Reform and Orthodox colleagues were able to respond to this question in a much more timely fashion. The Reform rabbi is able to cite his movement’s historic 1983 resolution establishing that “if the child is raised exclusively as a Jew and one parent is Jewish, then the child is recognized as a Jew in Reform communities regardless of the gender of the Jewish parent.” The Orthodox rabbi frames his answer with words like “difficult” and “painful” but ultimately cites Halacha (Jewish law) as unable to recognize the children (or grandchildren) of a Jewish man and non-Jewish woman as Jews without benefit of conversion.
Like many Conservative rabbis this issue hits home with me. I have a first cousin who, by definition, is not considered Jewish according to Halacha. That means that according to the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, of which I’m a member, I am not permitted to officiate at her wedding should she marry an individual deemed Jewish according to Halacha. That marriage would be considered an intermarriage without a formal conversion, and the children of that marriage would not be considered Jewish from a Halachic definition. This cousin has been raised Jewish, attended Hebrew School, became a bat mitzvah in a Reform congregation and considers herself Jewish. To complicate matters, her younger brother underwent a formal conversion in the mikveh after having a bris on the eighth day and is therefore regarded as Jewish according to Halacha. I’m not sure that there could be a more confusing example of the mess that has been created with Jewish identity in the modern American Jewish world.
Before making any recommendations as to how to resolve this issue or how I will respond to the question above, it is important to understand that the Reform Movement’s 1983 resolution allowing patrilineal descent didn’t create this mess, but it did complicate it further. In the almost 30 years since that decision, there has been much crossover between the Conservative and Reform movements in America. Thus, when the Reform movement issued its resolution (which was in the works for more than 35 years), it might have thought the implications would be wholly positive and would really only impact Reform Jews (the resolution specifies “in Reform communities”). However, that resolution has had negative impacts on both the Conservative and Modern Orthodox movements. The question of “Who’s a Jew” has less implications for the Orthodox Jews in America as it is unusual for them to marry outside of their sect. It is when a Modern Orthodox or Conservative young person wants to marry an individual who has been considered Jewish through the Reform movement’s notion of patrilineal descent that we are posed with the problem. Jewish young people in these more liberal denominations interact throughout adolescence and the college years in youth groups, summer camps, Israel trips and college Hillels. Additionally, following college Jewish communal organizations like Federation and B’nai Brith do not distinguish between patrilineal Jews and matrilineal Jews at young adult singles’ events.
We are now facing head on the inter-denominational challenges that have arisen from the Reform movement’s resolution as the children of that era are now of marriage age and having their own children. In response to the question above from the Jewish Values Online website, I would respond as follows:
There is no question that you have been raised in a family that has embraced Judaism, Jewish culture and Jewish values. You have grown up identifying as a Jewish person and because of your father’s Jewish heritage, you have a claim to the birthright of the Jewish people. The Reform denomination of Judaism, in which you have affiliated, acknowledges you as a full-fledged member of the Jewish people for all purposes. Should you marry a man who is Jewish through matrilineal descent, it would be advisable that you undergo a formal conversion so there would be no Halachic issues concerning your children’s Jewish identity.
Matters surrounding Israel’s legal system as it pertains to Jewish identity should not be an issue for you unless you plan to immigrate to Israel and become a citizen. Should that be the case, I would advise you to inquire about those issues at that time and not worry about them now. Like all civil laws, they have the ability to change over time based on Israel’s government at the time and the authority and opinion of the Chief Rabbinate.
As you acknowledged, this might not be the answer you want to hear, but at this time it is the reality. A conversion for someone in your situation (raised Jewishly, who identifies as Jewish) is intended to make your Judaism more legitimate from a Halachic perspective. It should not be understood as undermining your religious identity throughout your life. It is a conversion in a different category than an individual becoming Jewish from another religion altogether. Consider it a technicality.
My ultimate goal is to remove such problems in the future so these painful questions don’t arise in the future. It is first important to acknowledge that this is a matter full of nuance and the American Jewish community is made up of very different communities who will never agree on most issues. That being said, this issue must be resolved for Jews from the more liberal movements of modern Judaism (Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Modern Orthodox) whose followers are marrying each other and raising families together.
Over the years, there have been several recommendations to fix this matter. Some have suggested mass conversions for all Jewish children before bar or bat mitzvah. Others have recommended that all brides and grooms go to the mikveh as a form of conversion before the wedding to assure Halachic Jewish status.
My proposal is to set a time limit on the status quo. Until the year 2020, matrilineal descent is the only accepted form of passing Jewish status genetically. Jewish individuals who are raised Jewish in a home with a Jewish father and identify as Jewish are to be considered Jewish from a cultural perspective, but must undergo a formal conversion for recognition as Jewish from a Halachic understanding.
After the year 2020, it will be understood that because of modern genetic testing (DNA tests) it is now possible to ascertain patrilineality with complete certainty. Therefore, a Jewish individual with at least one Jewish parent will be considered Jewish from a Halachic perspective for all matters. While the Orthodox will not agree to this, it will not have the same negative implications as the fissure between the Reform and Conservative movements that has existed for the past three decades.
The leaders of the American Jewish community should begin collaborating on such a partnership agreement. Only if we are on the same page on the matter of Jewish status will we be able to seek harmony among the disparate denominations of liberal Judaism. We cannot allow the ultra-Orthodox to dictate the definition of a Jewish individual, but we also cannot allow ourselves to be fractured by our own differing definitions of Jewish status. There has been far too much controversy and pain for this situation to continue unresolved.
Cross-Posted to the Huffington Post