MSU Hillel: If You Build It

Like many rabbis I’m often asked why I chose to become a rabbi. People are interested to know if there was a pivotal moment in my upbringing that steered me to the rabbinate. In responding to that question I’ve always cited my years as a student leader at Michigan State University Hillel.

A few weekends ago I spent a memorable weekend in East Lansing my eldest child and attended Shabbat festivities at MSU Hillel. It was the first Shabbat I experienced on the MSU campus since my graduation from the university almost fifteen years ago. It proved to be a nostalgic weekend for me and one in which I truly gave thanks for the many gifts that MSU Hillel provided for me.

My son in front of the MSU Hillel building earlier this month.

Early on in my college career there was a fire at the Hillel building. The structure was already old and in need of remodeling. After the fire, students attending events at Hillel would complain of the horrible smell from the fire and water damage. There was no doubt that a new Hillel building was sorely needed.

I became a student leader at MSU Hillel almost immediately. During “Welcome Week” my freshman year I was asked by the president of Hillel if I would be interested in taking a vacant position on the Hillel board. I had served as president of my synagogue youth group as a high school senior and just returned from a summer in Israel on a teen tour so I was eager to get involved in Jewish life on campus. I replied that I was interested and the rest was history.

I jumped right in and soon found myself spending a lot of time at Hillel. During my sophomore year I co-led the student board and was chairman of the Jewish Student Union. So after the fire I had a seat at the table discussing building plans with leaders of the institution’s “adult” board, architects, Jewish Federation leaders and donors. I recall a Federation executive cautioning me not to get excited about seeing the imagined new Hillel building while I was still a student, but that I would one day take pride in knowing I had something to do with its creation.

That lesson from the Federation executive proved true. The invitation to attend Shabbat dinner a few weeks ago was to honor MSU Hillel on the tenth anniversary of its Lester & Jewell Morris Hillel Jewish Student Center. Leading Shabbat evening services on the second floor that night I looked out at the very young looking faces in the congregation and flashed back to the many times I led services as a college student. I looked into the beautiful library room where one student was busily studying and recalled the thousands of hours I spent sitting in the old library of Hillel cramming for final exams, exploring ancient Jewish texts, and writing my admission essays for rabbinical school.

Following services that night my son asked why there were so many students at Shabbat dinner. I explained that Hillel was the only place on campus for students to enjoy a hot, kosher Shabbat meal. I told him how important Hillel is for Jewish students on campus. And then I told him how important Hillel was for me. Without MSU Hillel I don’t know where I would be today.

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

Playing Golf with My Deceased Uncle

My Uncle Jerry passed away in February 2009 and I miss him every day. However, I seem to miss his presence more over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend which comes to a close today. Thanksgiving was his favorite holiday and we always spent it together. I recently wrote this tribute about him and how he influenced me to start playing golf. While we never played golf together, I feel like his spirit is with me each time I step onto a golf course in the same way that we believe the presence of the prophet Elijah is with us at each bris in the Jewish tradition. Here’s my tribute to my beloved uncle:

My Uncle Jerry began playing golf in his 40s. He really fell in love with the sport and encouraged me to take it up too. He regretted that he had waited so long to embrace golf and cautioned me to not wait until I was too old that I’d also regret not having started sooner. Unfortunately, he died of pancreatic cancer at the young age of 54 before we ever had the chance to play a round of golf together.

While I would have loved to have played 18 holes with him, he is very much a part of my own golf game today. I took up golf three years ago while I was still mourning my uncle’s death. I played my first few rounds wearing his FootJoy golf shoes and using his clubs. I could hear his voice before each shot I took. I heard his advice, his sarcasm, his laughter, and his disappointment when I didn’t follow his recommendation.

Golf Swing

Even though we never walked (or drove) a golf course together, my uncle dispensed influential words of wisdom to me about the game. On a few occasions when he visited me at my home we would go outside and he would take his driver out of the trunk. I’d take some swings and he would grab my waist or shoulders and correct my stance and swing. But more than offering a couple tips on the fundamentals of golf, my uncle taught me why he loves the game so much. Today, I remember his lessons as the Four C’s:

Calm – My uncle was a very competitive guy who could become very frustrated with his athletic performance if things weren’t working out for him, but the trick to golf he would say was a calming demeanor when the club is in your hands. I have found that to be sound advice since I certainly hit the ball much better when my body is calm.

Clarity – If calm is the physical trick to golf, then clarity is the key mental component of the game. My uncle was a family man and a business owner with a lot on his mind, but when he laced up his golf shoes he knew that he had to clear his thoughts and focus on the game at hand. Mental clarity is essential to a successful golf game I have learned.

Coordination – My uncle was always interested in the way the body worked. In order for a solid swing to occur, the different parts of your body have to be coordinated. It is imperative that a golfer understands how the muscles and joints are operating to ensure a coordinated strike of the ball.

Care – In addition to developing a successful golf game, my uncle appreciated the rules and traditions of the game. While he might have been lax in following some other rules in life, he took golf etiquette very seriously. He often explained how important it was to care for the golf course (replace divots, rake sand bunkers, and repair ball marks) so other players wouldn’t be negatively effected by your disregard. He also liked the centuries-old traditions of the game which include respect for other players, an integrity for score keeping, and adherence to the standards and values of the game.

It often pains me that I never had the opportunity and privilege to play a round of golf with my uncle, but his spirit has become a part of my golf game. In discovering my own love of the game, I feel that I am honoring him and our relationship. I’m grateful for the close friendship I had with my uncle and thankful that the sport of golf has kept us together in the years since he left us.

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

Israel’s Gaza Situation Becomes Cyber War

Social media changes the zeitgeist in ways we couldn’t have imagined. As we saw with the recent presidential election, opinions and attacks now travel at the speed of light. And so it should be no surprise that the ongoing Middle East conflict in Gaza between the Palestinians and Israelis has escalated into a Cyber war.

While the conflict may seem like history repeating itself, social media is actually changing the way the public sees the violence. As several news agencies have reported,Israel is now using social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and YouTube to its advantage in its war with Hamas in Gaza. In the past Israel has had to rely upon mainstream news agencies to report on the back-and-forth actions in Gaza, but now the Israeli military and government can take its message straight to the people using its social networks.

As the LA Times reported today:

While Israel launched its surprise attack Wednesday on Gaza, it declared it to the world on Twitter, arguing its case for the new campaign against Hamas in less than 140 characters.

Minute by minute, the Israel Defense Forces fed followers information and arguments on the strike. At their computers, Internet users could click through aerial photos, check updates on the offensive and watch a YouTube video of the strike killing the Hamas military chief.

At one point, the Israeli military traded Twitter barbs with Hamas. “We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead,” the @IDFSpokesperson account tweeted Wednesday.

The Hamas military wing tweeted back, “Our blessed hands will reach your leaders and soldiers wherever they are (You Opened Hell Gates on Yourselves).”

Israel Defense Forces Twitter Account

Social media isn’t new to the IDF, but the way it’s now using such sites as Twitter is new and will likely become the way nation-states will operate in military conflicts. It is clear that the chief spokesman of the IDF, Yoav Mordechai, believes that tweeting the operation in Gaza is a good weapon in its hasbara (public relations) struggle. Israel has always been challenged by negative PR in the mainstream media. Mordechai’s office even used Twitter to send a warning to its Hamas enemies, tweeting, “We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead.” The IDF’s Twitter feed has been continually updated with news, pictures and videos from the front lines using the Twitter “hashtag” #PillarOfDefense. Perhaps the Cyber war really became a reality when Hamas’ military wing responded with return fire on Twitter, tweeting back, “You Opened Hell Gates on Yourselves.”

In addition to the IDF’s new found use of Twitter, sites like YouTube (operated by Google) have had to navigate their way through the new murky waters of whether the postings by the IDF of their military operations are deemed “kosher” according to its own terms of service agreement. Originally Google yanked a video posted by the Israeli military Wednesday, which showed the “pinpoint strike” that killed Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari in his car. YouTube originally had a message on the removed video stating, “This clip has been removed because its content violated YouTube’s Terms of Service. Sorry about that.”

However, YouTube apparently changed its corporate mind and allowed the video to be shown. A company spokesperson explained, “With the massive volume of videos on our site, sometimes we make the wrong call. When it’s brought to our attention that a video has been removed mistakenly, we act quickly to reinstate it.” Most likely enough anti-Israel YouTube users had flagged the video triggering a review process until someone at YouTube could view the video in question and make the decision. By reinstating the video, YouTube opened up a whole new front in this war.

Israel Defense Forces Facebook Page

In taking the Middle East conflict to the Web, the opportunity for hacking has also been escalated. So it was no surprise early yesterday morning when a hacker group called “Anonymous” announced a mission to crash and deface websites belonging to the IDF, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and other Israeli websites belonging to security and financial corporations. Using Twitter, the hacking group urged its followers to bring down more than 40 websites belonging to the Israeli government and military.

In a statement, the hackers stated, “We will do everything in our power to hinder the evil forces of the IDF arrayed against you. We will use all our resources to make certain you stay connected to the Internet and remain able to transmit your experiences to the world.” Already the hacker group has claimed to have taken down Israeli’s “top security and surveillance website.” They also released a “care package” with tools for staying online if the Israeli government cuts off Internet access in Gaza. Another hacker group called Telecomix posted a message online with instructions on how to use dial-up Internet to stay connect if the Web is shut down. According to Forbes.com, most of the Anonymous’ target websites were still online.

Another new front of the Middle East war in Gaza has been the public discourse on social networking sites. As soon as the conflict escalated advocates on both sides of the conflict began using Facebook to show their support. Pro-Israel supporters began simply updating their Facebook status with the Hebrew words עם ישראל חי (Am Yisra’el Chai) meaning “The nation of Israel lives.” Other Facebook and Twitter users reposted news reports of the direct hit on the Gaza leader and reminded their followers that the news coverage of the conflict has not accurate covered the escalation as thousands of missiles had already been fired into Israel from Gaza. Yesterday, in a show of support many users on Facebook began posting photos of IDF soldiers from visits to the Jewish homeland.

On Twitter, #Gaza and #Jerusalem have been trending off and on over the past few days and many heated back-and-forth conversations have taken place on the site. The IDF’s Flickr site has also seen a huge uptick in traffic with many users reposting photos from that stream to their own Pinterest boards. Additionally, the IDF’s Facebook page has noticed a sharp increase in fans approaching a quarter million. The IDF page’s recent status was “Shabbat Shalom from the IDF. We won’t be able to rest until we bring quiet to Israel.”

The long-simmering conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians will be the first test of the social media zeitgeist. Newspapers and television news outlets are still relevant, but this will go down as the first war that was also played out in real time on the Web. In the social media era, anyone and everyone can become a reporter. And the millions of vehement opinions will likely only raise the heat of this escalating conflict.

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

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

The Jewish Value of Voting

I don’t recall “The Jewish Vote” ever being such a widely discussed topic during a presidential election in my lifetime. Not only is there speculation about how American Jews will vote today, but opinion polling of Israelis is making world news as well.

A Times of Israel survey of 400 adult Israelis showed they prefer GOP candidate Mitt Romney (45%) to President Barack Obama (29%) for president. And according to “exit polling” of Israeli expats who voted absentee in the U.S. elections (up over 400% this election) conducted by ivoteisrael.org, a full 85% reportedly voted for Romney. President Obama only received 14.3%, which is 40% lower than the vote he received from Israel in 2008 thereby making Israel even more Republican-leaning than Utah, Oklahoma or Wyoming.


The JTA reports that Jewish votes in swing states are stirring emotions and that Jewish votes in these states are stressing themes of Jewish vulnerability and threatened Jewish values. “In the final days of what has been a close and bitterly contested election, it’s not so much that nothing is sacred in the fight for the Jewish vote. It’s that little that is sacred has not been put to use.” The article uses the hotly contested senate race in Ohio between Jewish Republican Josh Mandel (Ohio treasurer and a Marine vet) and incumbent Sherrod Brown, a Democrat. Members of the prominent Ratner family, who are related to Mandel by marriage, wrote a scathing letter in the Cleveland Jewish News attacking their cousin’s husband for his conservative views on same-sex marriage and gays in the military.

This election cycle has been an ugly one when it comes to the Jewish community. The lack of civility is something that I hope ends as soon as the results are in so that we can begin the healing process.

Rather than get into the whole heated political debate over which candidate for president will be better for Israel’s security or for American Jews’ social issues, I thought it would be nice to take a look at the Jewish value of voting and civic engagement.

The responsibility of choosing leaders dates all the way back to the Torah. In fact, it was a non-Israelite leader who first gave the recommendation of setting up a system of representatives who would render judgement based on the Law. In Exodus 18, Moses’ father-in-law Yitro advises, “Look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens.”

In Deuteronomy 1:13 it says, “Choose for your tribes wise, understanding, and experienced men, and I will appoint them as your heads.” And later in Deuteronomy we learn the commandment to set up a one leader system. “When you come to the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you possess it and dwell in it and then say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,’ you may indeed set a king over you whom the Lord your God will choose. One from among your brothers you shall set as king over you. You may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother.”

As I walk into the voting booth on Election Day I pause for a moment and study two Jewish texts. The first comes from a teaching in Pirkei Avot (the Ethics of the Sages). “Hillel taught: Do not separate yourself from the public.” Hillel reminds me that the civic act of voting is a value that I must uphold and not take for granted. When I cast my ballot I am declaring that I am a vocal part of the community.

The second text comes from Maimonides and reminds me of the importance of being free to choose. In his Laws of Repentance, Maimonides taught that making a choice is a central principle and a pillar of the Jewish faith. “As the Torah states: ‘Behold I have given you this day a choice between good and life, death and evil.’ It is also written in the Torah: ‘Behold, I have set before you today the blessing and the curse.’ In other words, the choice is in your hands. Any one of the deeds of men which a person desires to do, he may, whether good or evil… The Holy One, blessed be He, does not force people or decree upon them to do good or evil – rather, everything is left to their own choice.”

The responsibility to vote is part of what makes me so proud and appreciative to live in a democracy. I feel blessed to walk into the polling place and cast my ballot. Not only am I letting my voice be heard, I’m also expressing my right to choose and my responsibility as a member of the public community.

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

Facebook Revolutionizes the Birthday Greeting

Hallmark Cards, Inc. estimates that greeting card sales have plummeted from 6 billion to 5 billion annually over the past decade. Earlier this month, the nation’s top greeting card maker announced it will close a plant that made one-third of its greeting cards and terminate over 300 jobs.

This news should come as no surprise for Facebook users who use the social networking site to wish friends “Happy Birthday” or leave a comment of condolence after the death of a loved one. Facebook now boasts 1 billion users world-wide, and for many of those users the custom of offering birthday greetings has changed.

Humans have been wishing each other birthday greetings for millennia. Even in the Torah there is mention of a birthday celebration (Pharaoh), but over the years, the way in which we mark each other’s birthday milestones has changed. Never has this change been as drastic as in recent years as Facebook usage has increased exponentially. While individuals still send paper birthday cards to close friends and relatives on their birthday, many transitioned to online greeting cards as the Web developed. (Hallmark’s main rival company, American Greetings, is adding jobs now because of its move to online birthday cards.) Picking up the phone to call our best friends and relatives on their birthday is still practiced, but it is also now acceptable to send an email or text message of birthday greetings as well.

Where Facebook has become the “killer app” and disruptor in the culture of sending birthday greetings is in its birthday feature on the sidebar. Each day beginning at midnight Facebook updates the birthday events box on each user’s sidebar alerting the user to birthdays being celebrated on that day. Prior to this feature individuals had to rely on their own information in an address book or birthdays manually inputted into a calendar. These daily reminders are appreciated by active Facebook users as forgetting birthdays is now mostly a thing of the past.

At first Facebook simply listed the friends celebrating birthdays on that day in the sidebar box, but within the past couple years the company realized how prevalent the custom of posting birthday greetings on friends’ Facebook Walls had become and instituted a simpler way of posting. Now users are given a text box next to each birthday celebrant’s name to easily leave a birthday greeting or wish. Past and future birthdays are also listed on the Facebook user’s calendar. Earlier this month, Facebook began showing friends’ birthdays at the top of its mobile site with a gift icon next to the birthday celebrant’s name. Clicking through this icon allows the user to send a birthday gift with Facebook taking a cut of the profit.

With Facebook’s assistance people are now wishing “Happy Birthday” to people whose birthdays they historically wouldn’t have acknowledged (long lost elementary school classmates and former colleagues), but some say it hasn’t changed the way they still mark the milestones of close friends. “Facebook doesn’t change the way I handle birthdays I always acknowledged in the past, but I still like to send paper birthday cards to my close family and a few friends. But I do offer birthday greetings to many of my Facebook friends — it takes but a moment, and I think they enjoy it,” said Bobbie Lewis of Oak Park.

Jacob Zuppke of Bloomfield Hills also uses Facebook to wish his large cohort of Facebook connections a birthday wishes. “Facebook reminds me every day someone is getting older. There are very few birthdays I store in my calendar, but with Facebook, I never miss a birthday.” Zuppke acknowledges that the standard Facebook birthday greeting can be impersonal. “I use Facebook as a calendar for birthdays. If I see it is someone close to me, I will call them or find a way to visit them. I don’t use Facebook to actually communicate with anyone close to me for a special day.”

Joey Niskar, an attorney who lives in West Bloomfield, has made the offering of birthday wishes via Facebook part of his daily regimen. “Every day, I check the automatic birthday notifications provided by Facebook and send a nice happy birthday wish to each Facebook friend celebrating a birthday on that particular day. For the other Facebook friends who may be old friends, a happy birthday wish via Facebook is very meaningful.”

RESPONDING TO BIRTHDAYS

What is the protocol in responding to the barrage of birthday wishes Facebook users now receive annually? Lewis explained, “For those who send Facebook birthday greetings to me, I usually offer a generic response to all unless the birthday message is something more interesting and personal than “Happy Birthday.’ I know some people dislike this aspect of Facebook, but I don’t mind it.” For Zuppke, with over 3,000 Facebook connections including many he doesn’t know or speak with on a regular basis, responding with one mass message at the end of the day thanking the group as a whole is sufficient.

When it is Sherry Kanter’s birthday she simply acknowledges friends’ greetings with the ‘Like’ button. “I try to respond personally to as many as I can. It is a great way to keep in touch with people,” the Huntington Woods resident said.

“I think most people have come to realize that a group thank you at the end of the day or the next morning is quite appropriate,” reasoned Dave Henig of Sylvan Lake. “With the volume of wishes that I assume most people get, it becomes impractical to respond individually.”

OTHER GREETINGS ON FACEBOOK

Birthday wishes may be the most common form of greeting on Facebook, but the site is used to offer other forms of milestone greetings as well. From engagements and weddings to new babies and wedding anniversaries, millions of Facebook users share their news with their networks on the site and receive comments in response. “If someone mentions on Facebook they’re celebrating something important I don’t hesitate to offer a ‘mazel tov’ comment. Condolences following a death are a little trickier,” Lewis says. “For people with whom I communicate mostly by Facebook, it seems appropriate, but I always write a personal message too. And if they don’t want to receive condolences via Facebook, they shouldn’t be announcing their loss on Facebook. For close friends and acquaintances, I still send paper cards or make a tribute gift in their loved one’s memory.”

With Facebook, birthday celebrants who once received only a handful of phone calls on their birthday now get hundreds of wishes annually. That can be a nice gift. As Niskar observed, “By notifying me of birthdays and allowing me to wish each person a ‘Happy Birthday,’ Facebook has enabled me to nourish my connection to old friends at least once per year. It makes the other person feel good, which in turn makes me happy.”

Originally published in the Detroit Jewish News

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