Honoring Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Today is the secular anniversary of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the preeminent theologian of the 20th century (his yahrzeit on the 18th of Tevet is next week). Many of my teachers at The Jewish Theological Seminary were students of Heschel’s and were highly influenced by his thinking and writing.

In Heschel’s memory I share my favorite story of Heschel as retold to me recently by Rabbi Gordon Tucker, one of his students: Heschel was sent by the Seminary to a Conservative synagogue to give a speech at a fundraising event. He went on and on for over an hour about his theology of humanity’s desire to conquer both Space and Time. It was highly intellectual and far over the heads of many in the audience who quickly lost focus. When Heschel was finally finished with his teaching, the president of the congregation got up and simply said: “You heard the rabbi, the Seminary needs more Space and there isn’t much Time!”

While Heschel died before I was born, his writings have had a significant impact on my own Jewish theology. In college I read Heschel’s The Sabbath which I have re-read several times since. My library has a dedicated shelf of Heschel’s works, many of which were inherited by me from my late Papa, David Gudes. My copies of Man in Search of God and The Prophets still have the dogeared pages that my Papa left.

In high school, as a member of USY’s AJ Heschel Society, I would stay up late at night learning about Heschel’s theology. I recall studying God in Search of Man with USY’s International Director Jules Gutin at International Convention in Los Angeles in 1993.

Over the years I have taught Heschel’s The Sabbath to adults and teens. The first time I taught that book to teens was as a college student at Camp CRUSY. It was after Shabbat dinner on a Friday night and somehow all twenty or so teens gave me their full attention. That was one of the pivotal moments in my decision to become a rabbi.

I also remember the first time I taught about Heschel’s theology of Shabbat to adults. It was during a Tikkun Leil Shavuot at Congregation B’nai Israel. Sitting next to the synagogue’s rabbi, Leonardo Bitran, I discussed how I fully embrace all the technological advances we have at the end of the 20th century and how my love of technology, electronics and automation often comes into conflict with Heschel’s Shabbat theology, which calls for a break from technological automation that makes our lives easier. Heschel believed that we humans use space to try and control time. I asked “Is Heschel’s notion of Shabbat a possibility? Can we, as humans in the 21st century, ever just allow ourselves to sanctify time without trying to conquer space and time in a tech-centered world?”

As society becomes even more dependent on technology in the 21st century, Heschel’s theology seems to gain importance. Heschel’s legacy is two-fold. He was a Jewish pioneer in the call for civil rights in our country and he pushed us to think intelligently about God’s role in our lives. Heschel’s ability to write poetically, if cryptically, about modern man’s challenge of letting time dictate our lives if only for a day has been a gift for generations and will be a gift for generations to come. May the righteous memory of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel continue to be for blessings.

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

Enough Senseless Tragedies Like Sandy Hook

A movie theater. A Sikh house of worship. An elementary school.

How long until we say enough gun violence in our nation? These tragic events get the media coverage because they are the result of gun violence on a large scale, but there are horrific murders and suicides in our nation all the time which are the result of guns and bullets.

Earlier today I took part in a conference call for rabbis about the recent tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Rabbi David Lerner, founder of Clergy Against Bullets, and Rabbi Jeffery Silberman, a chaplain and Director of Spiritual Care at Danbury Hospital in Connecticut (ten miles from Newtown), both spoke to the more than 100 rabbis on the call. There were Jewish texts that were cited, but ultimately the discussion turned to the need for comprehensive gun reform in our nation.

This evening I represented the local Jewish community at a candlelight vigil for the victims. The following are the words I spoke in an attempt to put the tragedy into perspective, bring healing and also encourage people that we must work to put an end to gun violence.

I have been asked to speak here this evening as a rabbi and as a representative of our Jewish community, however, I would not be fully honest if I didn’t tell you that I also stand here in my most important capacity – a Dad. As a father of two 1st graders I couldn’t help but look at the adorable faces of those children and think about my own children. This violent act was senseless, immoral, brutal and truly vicious. But it was not unspeakable. We, as God’s children, MUST speak about it.

In the portion of the Torah which Jewish people will read in synagogue this coming Shabbat, we hear the voice of Joseph asking if his father is still alive. After revealing himself to his shocked brothers, the first words out of his mouth concern his loved one and whether he is alive or dead. Last Friday, it was the other way around. It was parents asking if their child was still alive. With concern in their voice, they asked the question that no parent should ever have to ask.

In Judaism, we have a mitzvah, a commandment, from Leviticus 19:16 that says lo ta’amod al dam re’echa  — You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor. And I know this is a core ethical precept in all of our faith traditions. Just as we all share the value of Tikkun Olam, that we must all serve as God’s partners in making the world a better place, so too we must hold up the banner that we cannot stand by as our fellow humans, indeed our nation’s children, are being shot dead in school.

We are so much better than that. We have a responsibility to protect each other. To ensure that violence always loses out to peace. That life trumps death. We owe it to the kids who perished and to those who are back at school. We owe it to fellow parents and grandparents.
I don’t have an answer to the question of “where God was” at that school on that fateful day in Connecticut. None of us does. But we do have a mission in front of us. Let us work together so that tragedies such as this are relegated to the history books and our future will be so much brighter.

As a tribute to the victims of this tragedy and to all who mourn, I offer this prayer written by my colleague Rabbi Naomi Levy:

Our hearts are breaking, God,
As our nation buries innocent children and brave teachers.
The loss is overwhelming.
Send comfort and strength, God, to grieving parents,
To siblings, family and friends in this time of shock and mourning.
Shield them from despair.
Send healing to the schoolchildren who are lost and frightened
Whose eyes witnessed unfathomable horrors.
Ease their pain, God,
Let their fears give way to hope.
Let their cries give way once more to laughter.

Bless us, God,
Work through us.
Turn our helplessness into action.
Teach us to believe that we can rise up from this tragedy
With a renewed faith in the goodness of our society.
Shield us from indifference
And from our tendency to forget.
Open our hearts, open our hands.
Innocent blood is calling out to us to act.
Remind us that we must commit ourselves to prevent further bloodshed
With all our hearts and souls.
Teach us perseverance and dedication.
Let us rise up as one in a time of soul-searching and repair
So that all children can go to school in peace, God,
Let them be safe.

God of the brokenhearted,
God of the living, God of the dead,
Gather the souls of the victims
Into Your eternal shelter.
Let them find peace in Your presence, God.
Their lives have ended
But their lights can never be extinguished.
May they shine on us always
And illuminate our way.
Amen.

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

Scammers Add to the Tragedy of Noah Pozner

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

When the names of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut were announced, Jewish media outlets immediately published articles about the youngest victim Noah Pozner, the Jewish 6-year-old who was laid to rest earlier this week in a traditional Jewish funeral officiated by the family’s rabbi, Shaul Praver of Congregation Adath Israel in Newtown.

As if the story of this tragedy couldn’t get any worse news reports have surfaced that individuals have sought to capitalize off the Pozner family’s heartache. A man named Jason Martin rushed to purchase the internet domain noahpozner.com. After the Pozner family had the noahpozner.com website transferred to its ownership, Victoria Haller, Noah’s aunt, emailed Martin. He wrote back that he’d meant “to somehow honor Noah and help promote a safer gun culture. I had no ill intentions I assure you.”

The purchase of noahpozner.com wasn’t the least of the surprising acts done by individuals not associated with the Pozner family. It was what was published on that website. Adding to the grieving family’s sorrow, someone the family didn’t know began soliciting donations in Noah’s memory, claiming that they would send any cards, packages and money collected to his parents and siblings. An official-looking website had been set up at noahpozner.com, even including petitions on gun control.

According to an AP story, Noah Pozner’s uncle, Alexis Haller, “called on law enforcement authorities to seek out these despicable people. These scammers are stealing from the families of victims of this horrible tragedy.” Noah Pozner’s family learned of the scam after a friend received an email asking for money for the family. The email was poorly punctuated and listed an address for donations with which the Pozners where unfamiliar.

Noah Pozner was the youngest of the 1st grade victims at the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

While scams such as this one against the Pozners are all too common following a tragedy, it is still disturbing to the majority of people who live ethically. It is also outrageous that this family in mourning should have to deal with such a travesty and be hassled with having to deal with these scammers.

Ken Berger, the president and CEO of Charity Navigator, was quoted in the AP article. He said, “It’s abominable. It’s just the lowest kind of thievery.”

The noahpozner.com website now displays the eulogy his mother delivered at his funeral as well as several photos of the adorable 6-year-old who loved tacos. Donations to Noah’s Ark of Hope can be made on the site and a disclaimer clearly states that “This is the only official website for payment to directly and solely benefit the siblings of Noah Pozner.”

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

Social Media Sites Get Political About Israel

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

Spending a week in Israel earlier this month I kept my eyes open to the way Israelis use technology. Even on my first time in Israel over 18 years ago I noticed that Israelis thirsted for the latest tech gadgets. Being a country that struggled with telecommunications early on in its existence primed Israel for a telecom revolution. In the first decades of statehood, stories persisted about families who waited years just to get a telephone in their own home. So when mobile communications took off in the middle of the 1990s, Israelis were eager to adopt the new technology.

One thing I noticed during my recent visit was that the Apple iPhone is much less common in Israel than it is in North America. I also got the sense that Israelis prefer the GPS app Waze over other GPS services. That could be in part due to Apple’s decision not to link Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in its Maps application or World Clock on its new operating system. Back in September when Apple CEO Tim Cook admitted that Apple’s mobile Maps application was inaccurate and had many flaws (including the Jerusalem situation), he advised users of OS5 to download alternative navigation apps including Waze which was designed by Waze Ltd., an Israeli company.

Other questionable situations in social media have led many to question whether these are really honest mistakes or politically motivated actions. A recent Huffington Post article titled Did Flickr Delete Israel From Its Map? raises questions about the maps plugin of the photo social networking site Flickr. When the user zoomed in on Jerusalem there were no streets or landmarks as there would be for every other city in the world. The article triggered two responses from Yahoo which now owns Flickr. The first email from a company representative stated that Yahoo was aware of the issue and was working to quickly improve what is a third party map provider problem. There was no mention of why Israel was the only city in the world affected. The full email message from Yahoo read:

The geographical data that appears on Flickr and Yahoo! Maps comes from a third party map provider and we are working with them to understand and improve the gap in geographic coverage that has been reported. Yahoo! always wants to ensure the best possible product experience for our users, and this falls short of those expectations. We are continually working to source and roll out coverage where there is room to provide greater mapping details. In particular, we hope and expect that you will see improved maps coverage of Israel shortly.

The next day Flickr debuted a map that rendered Jerusalem as a normal city with its streets and landmarks returned to the way it was. There was no explanation for the error.

Of all the social networking sites, Facebook seemed to be the least problematic with Israel labeling. It is a very popular site in Israel. However, one Facebook user found that according to the site she no longer lived in Israel proper. Laura Ben-David, writing in the Times of Israel, explains how she suddenly was listed as living in Palestine rather than in Israel on her Facebook status updates:

Sorry, I didn’t share the news that I recently moved. In fact, I didn’t tell anyone. It was so sudden and so fast. We’re not just talking about moving from one street to another, or to a different neighborhood. Not even to another city or region. We’re talking about moving out of the country; out of Israel. Yes, I know it’s a shock to you. It was a shock to me as well. In fact, I found out about the move the same way most people find out things these days: on Facebook. I found out when friends saw a photo I’d taken from home and posted on Facebook, and they told me it was tagged with this new, previously unheard of location, ‘Neve Daniel, Palestine.’

Apparently Facebook no longer lists my town of ‘Neve Daniel’ as ‘Israel’, but rather as a city in ‘Palestine.’ Truthfully, this type of geographical blundering isn’t a particularly new development. In fact, I remember a time when I could ‘choose’ to tag my location either ‘Neve Daniel, Israel’ or ‘Neve Daniel, West Bank.’ Since 2010, Bing Maps have powered Facebook’s Places and locations. Frankly I don’t hold much stock in Bing Maps. A simple search in Bing could not even find Neve Daniel at all, in any country. I don’t know the back end of these programs, or how they work or fail to work. I can say that I successfully tagged the location on a photo, as I’ve done many times, as ‘Neve Daniel, Israel.’ Though what I saw, depending on where I was viewing it, was either only ‘Neve Daniel’ or ‘Neve Daniel, West Bank.’ What other people saw, and what they rushed to tell me and send me screen shots of, was ‘Neve Daniel, Palestine.’

While the situation between the Palestinians and the Israelis is indeed a complicated one, full of nuance, I think most would agree that these social networking sites are not the proper forums to play out the political situation. As far back as March 2008 Israeli settlers were fighting with Facebook to list their home city as part of Israel rather than Palestine. Ultimately, users in such settlements as Ma’aleh Adumim and Ariel were able to switch their hometowns back to Israel. However it seems like Facebook is once again taking it upon itself to determine which country users live in. Facebook groups have popped up urging Facebook to remain neutral in this political matter and not unilaterally list Israelis as living in Palestine.

As Ben-David explained, “We are living in a new reality where our sense of history is being molded – crafted, even – through social media. News outlets are barely fast enough to keep up with the speed by which social media spreads information. Hence it is social media that people today turn to for their news. And their facts. Today’s information from social media will be tomorrow’s history. In other words, if Facebook says it’s Palestine, it must be true. Even though it isn’t.”

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

Non-Jews Doing Hanukkah

A couple years ago I wrote about non-Jews observing certain Jewish customs. I looked at such examples as Justin Bieber reciting the Shema in Hebrew before each concert as well as non-Jews maintaining kosher diets, hanging mezuzahs on their front doors, dancing the Hora at weddings and erecting sukkahs.

The new trend seems to be non-Jewish celebs adopting Hanukkah rituals. While conservative pundits in the media claim there is a war on Christmas, just the opposite seems to be true about Hanukkah. More menorahs are being displayed in the public square. Chabad Lubavitch has politicians and celebrities light super-sized menorahs. Even Gene Robinson, a gay Bishop, brought a Hanukkah gift of dreidels to Jon Stewart when he visited the Daily Show during the holiday. And a call for new Hanukkah songs has been answered by a rapper.

Heeb asks, “Has Hanukkah become the must-be-seen celebration for the hip and famous, regardless of semitic bona-fides?” What prompted that question was a simple tweeted photo from singer/actress Zooey Deschanel, who is Roman Catholic. Deschanel’s tweet said “Happy Chanukah y’all!!!” and was linked with an Instagram photo of her lighting the Hanukkah menorah. That photo has received close to 100,000 likes on Instagram.

During the Hanukkah holiday this year, we also saw one NBA team pay tribute to their Jewish fans. The Houston Rockets posted a video of their players singing the Dreidel song. Some of the players really got into the spirit. The video includes former New York Knicks surprise star Jeremy Lin, but the highlight is Carlos Delfino who seems to have a lot of fun singing about the dreidel he made.


Jimmy Fallon also got into the Hanukkah holiday spirit by singing a dreidel parody to the tune of Flo Rida’s “Whistle” song. With Rashida Jones, who is Jewish, Fallon pulled a dreidel out of his pocket and began signing, “Can you spin my dreidel baby, dreidel baby, let me know. Girl I know that you’re not Jewish so I’ll start real slow. Then Rashida Jones sings, “Just put your fingertips together and you say Shalom.”

The ultimate in non-Jews doing Hanukkah this holiday season has to be the recently released Hanukkah rap by Too $hort, one of West Coast hip hop’s pioneers. While Too $hort might be best known for his hit song “The Ghetto,” his Hanukkah rap might catch on (at least in Jewish high schools). Too $hort released the Hanukkah rap song exclusively on TMZ.com and it can be listened to here. He’s not the first non-Jew to release a Hanukkah song of course. The Barenaked Ladies have sung several Hanukkah songs and rock band Incubus put out a nice Hanukkah song back in 2007.
So while many Jewish parents complain that not enough emphasis is placed on Hanukkah during the winter holiday season, many non-Jewish celebs have catapult the Jewish holiday into the mainstream. Maybe rapper Too $hort wouldn’t be Jewish parents first choice to sing about Hanukkah, but the thought is there. Hanukkah will never be as popular as Christmas, but the Jewish holiday about the miracle of light and an unforeseen victory over the tyrant Greco-Roman army is getting its due in pop culture.
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Larry Ritter: Modern Day Zionist and Israel Supporter

I spent the last week in Israel as part of a solidarity mission sponsored by the Masorti Foundation and the Rabbinical Assembly. The goal of the mission was for Conservative rabbis in North America to learn more about the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel and to show solidarity with the dozens of Masorti congregations throughout the country. The mission was subsidized by Israel Tour Connection (ITC), a New Jersey-based tour provider company headed by Larry Ritter. Spending time in Israel with Larry, I learned about his passion to bring thousands to Israel each year in order to support the Jewish country. The following is an article I wrote about Larry’s passion and principle objective in life. This was originally published on The Times of Israel and on the Huffington Post.

There are Zionists and there are lovers of Israel. Some are both.

On a United Jewish Appeal mission to Israel in 1982 Larry Ritter claims he became a full Jew. There was no conversion involved as he was born Jewish and raised in an Orthodox home. However, the Livingston, New Jersey native visited Israel for the first time that year and says he never fully felt Jewish until that experience. Thirty years later Ritter has had his passport stamped close to 100 times with the seal of the Jewish state.

Ritter, 69, firmly states that one cannot be a complete Jew without being a Zionist and loving the land of Israel. For that reason, he launched Israel Tour Connection (ITC) in 1989. Sitting at his kitchen table with his rabbi at the time, Samuel Cohen of Beth Shalom in Livingston, Ritter expressed his desire to help people get to Israel and have a taste of the memorable experience he first had earlier that decade. He wasn’t looking to start a travel agency, rather he wanted to become a reliable tour provider in an effort to help others feel the excitement and love for Israel.

Today, ITC sends over one hundred groups to Israel a year which translates to tens of thousands of pilgrims, both Jewish and Christian. They might be part of a synagogue, church or organizational mission or they might be part of a family traveling to Israel to celebrate a child’s bar or bat mitzvah in Jerusalem or atop Massada.

Ultimately, Jewish continuity is the banner Ritter waves in his effort to support Israel through tourism, one of the country’s largest industries. “My fear is that each new generation of Jews gets farther away from the Holocaust and they don’t have that communal memory to bring them closer to Israel. And drawing people closer to Israel is my core mission in life. I do this because I believe in it,” Ritter told me recently. In that vein his company identifies homogeneous groups to take to Israel. The majority of groups are from Conservative, Reform and Orthodox congregations throughout North America as well as family trips. However, the past decade has seen a steady increase in the number of Catholic, Christian and Evangelical groups Ritter has sent to the Holy Land. In a few weeks Ritter will accompany a group of African American tourists through the AME Church to Israel. Through the years not all of those groups have been homogeneous either. He has also brought interfaith delegations to Israel, building bridges between Christian Zionists and Jewish leaders.

The first time I traveled to Israel with Larry Ritter was in January 2003 when I was a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. As the U.S. was about to send troops to Iraq and Israel had once again been facing acts of terrorism, Ritter approached the Seminary and offered to subsidize a solidarity mission for students and faculty. After securing funding from the Ministry of Tourism and adding funds out of his own pocket, students were asked to pay only $300 for the four-day trip to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. At a time when Israel’s hotels were half empty Ritter helped over 100 students travel to Israel to show their support to their brothers and sisters in the Jewish state.

Fast forward ten years and I now find myself back in Israel with Ritter. This time Ritter determined it was necessary for North American Conservative rabbis to travel to Israel and show solidarity with their sister congregations throughout the country following the recent conflict with Gaza. Once again, Ritter helped subsidize the mission with his own funds. “Not only did I see a need to come to Israel following a challenging time for Israelis, but I knew how critical it was that Masorti (Conservative) congregations around Israel see that their movement’s rabbis from North America are willing to take time out of their busy schedules and come to Israel and give them strength,” Ritter explained.

On this most recent excursion, Ritter brought a duffle bag in addition to his own suitcase to Israel. Inside the duffle bag were two Torah scrolls to be donated to Masorti congregations in Israel. Not only does Ritter have a knack for finding the best hotel values, but he’s also developed a gift for locating Torah scrolls in American synagogues to be gifted to the small Israeli congregations that need them. As one rabbi who traveled with us in Israel this week put it, “What makes Larry so special is not only that he motivates people to come to Israel, but that he goes the extra mile.” Rabbi Harold Kravitz of Minnetonka, Minnesota continued, “He always wants to help. He’ll do whatever it takes to bring one more person to Israel or one more Torah to Israel for a fledgling congregation.”

With his staff of eleven, including his wife Marlene, in his Livingston, New Jersey office Ritter coordinates each trip with his satellite office in Israel and submits each itinerary to a “Situation Room” of the IDF to ensure the group’s safety. Each tour is custom designed based on the needs and desires of the traveler. Larry considers how many times the travelers have visited Israel in the past, what sites they might enjoy, and which areas of the country would have the deepest impact on them. Barbara Sutnick, ITC’s educational director in Israel explained, “Because of Larry’s vision, our goal is to bring to life all the wonder that is Israel through our tours – its places and its people, its past and its present.”

Each time he comes to Israel, Ritter feels like he’s home. “Israel is where I go to recharge my batteries,” he says. Although, his metaphorical batteries aren’t the only ones that get recharged while in Israel. Ritter’s two cellphones are constantly ringing as he makes arrangements with the airlines, various hotels, tour bus operators and other providers, as well as with religious leaders back in the U.S. eager to plan their next trip.

Through his Zionism and his love of helping people discover that same beauty and inspiration that he found in Israel thirty years ago, Larry Ritter is doing his part to keep Israel’s tourism industry vibrant and strong. Nothing seems to deter him from connecting young and old with the land of Israel. As he stated proudly, “So long as we have an Israel I’ll be sending people there.”

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

Best Hanukkah Videos of 2012

Hanukkah, Hanukah or Chanukkah… no matter how you spell it there’s one thing you can be certain of when Hanukkah arrives and that is that there will be no shortage of fun Hanukkah videos on YouTube. Since posting my list of the top Hanukkah videos the past couple years I now receive dozens of videos to include in my list. I’m sure I’m leaving out some great ones, but these are what I consider to be the best Hanukkah videos of 2012.

Oh, and special thanks to the indie band “fun.” for releasing the song “Some Nights” this year. As you can see from several of the videos below, it was an obvious song to parody y.for Hanukkah. And yes, the band’s guitarist/vocalist Jack Antonoff is Jewish and attended Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, New Jersey (he also dated Scarlett Johansson in high school). Enjoy!

Stand Four – 8 Nights

Pella Productions – 8 Nights Of Hanukkah A Capella Mashup

Maccabeats – Shine

Matisyahu Sings “Happy Hanukkah” on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno

The Best Dreidel Songs (Including a Version by Jimmy Fallon and Rashida Jones)

Shirat Machar (Marom) – Eight Nights the Miracle of Light

Technion – Rube Goldberg Machine Lights Menorah

Aish – Racing Home: A Hanukkah Surprise

Michelle Citrin – Hanukkah Lovin’

Bubala Please – Making Latkes (Warning: Strong Language)

(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To DREIDEL)

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

March for Soviet Jewry 25 Years Later

Twenty-five years ago today on Sunday, December 6, 1987, I headed off to Detroit Metropolitan Airport with my mother. Downstairs at the airport by the baggage claim we were divided into one of three chartered airplanes to fly to Washington D.C. for the march in support of Soviet Jewry. Those who were present at the March are encouraged to contribute their memories to the 25th anniversary website.

I was a 6th grader at Hillel Day School where we learned of the plight of Soviet Jewish Refuseniks who couldn’t leave the Soviet Union and were prohibited from practicing Judaism. That day with thousands of other like-minded Jews was a memorable experience for me.

Soviet Jewry March 25

I remember eating bagel and lox on the plane which was donated by Paul Borman, a Detroit philanthropist who owned Farmer Jack — a local grocery. I also remember being led in Jewish songs on the chartered plane by the late David Hermelin, another noted philanthropist in Detroit.

When we arrived to Washington we boarded buses to the National Mall where we called for the immediate mass emigration of Jewish refuseniks out of the oppresive Soviet Union. The entire Detroit delegation, wearing our white “Let My People Go” hats, marched from the Washington Monument to the Capitol Building. We sang “Hinei Mah Tov” and heard from Vice President George Bush, Elie Wiesel, and then Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky.

It is truly amazing how far we have come in the past 25 years. The 250,000 marchers made a difference as did all of the people who carried books and Jewish ritual items to the Former Soviet Union. When I was in Berlin with a group of rabbis in February 2011 I learned firsthand so much about the plight of the Refuseniks. Many Jews from the Former Soviet Union emigrated to Berlin and I had the privilege of hearing their story.

On this 25th anniversary I am recalling that memorable day in Washington and thinking about my bar mitzvah in October 1989 when I celebrated this life-cycle event with my Russian twin. May our people no longer no the oppression that our brothers and sisters in the Former Soviet Union experienced.

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

Ford’s New Jewish Leader

Originally published at JTA.org

It’s no secret that Henry Ford was a notorious anti-Semite, and his company’s dealings with the Nazi Party during the Holocaust are well documented. But the company’s story has changed drastically in recent years.

The Ford family’s donation of a rare 500-year-old Torah scroll to a suburban Detroit synagogue and the appointment of a Jewish chief operating officer demonstrate a marked shift in the company’s narrative when it comes to the Jewish community.

Mark Fields became the first Jewish COO of Ford Motor Company on December 1

The shift really began in the late 1940s when Ford’s grandson Henry Ford II took over the company and began hiring minorities, but it would take many more decades before Jewish executives were hired as officers. Mervyn Manning became the first Jewish officer of Ford when he became vice president in 1977.

During those years, Ford II already had started a period of repentance through action as the friend of such notable Jewish philanthropists as Max Fisher, making significant charitable gifts to the then-United Jewish Appeal.

Today in Detroit, the Ford Motor Co. and the billionaire family are regulary seen as major contributors to the Jewish federation and the Jewish community center. Members of the Ford family and top executives at the company have been honored by local Jewish groups.

And in 1999, Benson Ford Jr., a great-grandson of the auto tycoon, purchased the 500-year-old scroll and donated it to Temple Shir Shalom in West Bloomfield. The Torah was written in hiding between 1492 and 1560 in Spain or Portugal, where it was illegal to practice Judaism at the time.

The latest chapter in the long history of Ford and the Jews began Dec. 1, when Mark Fields effectively began running the 109-year-old international auto firm. Fields, 51, has been lauded for his intelligence, skill and dedication to the company. He has worked all over the world for Ford, including a stint as the CEO of Ford-controlled Mazda.

In early November, Bill Ford, the executive chairman and great-grandson of Henry Ford, announced the appointment of Fields — one that makes him the heir apparent for the CEO post when Alan Mulally retires in 2014 or earlier.

Fields, the descendant of Russian and Romanian Jews, became a bar mitzvah at a Conservative synagogue in Paramus, N.J., and received matzah and Hanukkah candles from his parents no matter where in the world he was working for Ford.

A graduate of Rutgers University and the Harvard Business School, where he earned a master’s degree in business, Fields maintains that he has never encountered any discrimination or anti-Semitism at Ford.

Bill Ford, making the announcement of Fields’ promotion, said, “The growth we’ve seen in him has been remarkable.”

While some might say that the anti-Semitic founder of Ford is likely rolling over in his grave as a Jewish man takes the reins of his historic company, the changes in the company have been happening for some time. History books will note Henry Ford’s discriminatory writings and practices, as well as the company’s ties to the Nazis during the Holocaust, but the Ford Motor Co. of the 21st century has continued the redemption process started by its founder’s scions.

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