German Tech Company Hires Asperger’s Syndrome Workers

For many the 1988 movie Rain Man was their first introduction to autism. Twenty-five years later and not only is autism a household term, but most people know someone who has been diagnosed to be on the autism spectrum. Today, fans of the primetime TV show Parenthood have watched the young Max Braverman (played by Max Burkholder) grow up before us in our living rooms with Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism.

The character in Rain Man was an oversimplified example of someone with autism, but many of his attributes were accurate. In the movie, Dustin Hoffman’s character has unusual skills that are exploited by his brother to count cards in Las Vegas casinos. While the brothers’ activities were unethical, the movie demonstrated that individuals with autism have unique abilities that neurotypical people do not.

Rain Main Autism Asperger's
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment; MGM Home Entertainment; United Artists

Those abilities are being put to good use by a German technology company called Auticon, which exclusively employs people with autism. The company’s owner, Dirk Mueller-Remus, founded the Auticon when his own son was diagnosed with Asperger’s. He says, “Our guys have a lot of skills in concentration and analytical/logical thinking. And we are sure the IT (information technology) industry will have benefits.”

According to Auticon’s website, the company uses the logical and analytical strengths of their consultants in software testing and quality assurance. The special abilities of their consultants with Asperger’s are advantageous in the quality control of software. Auticon lays out a vision that is both entrepreneurial as well as social. On the business side, Auticon seeks to deliver pinpoint quality in the IT sector, but it is also highly focused on being socially conscience and increasing the quality of life of those with autism through job satisfaction.

The idea that those with Asperger’s have special abilities that make them better qualified in certain jobs like those at Auticon is no shock to Mike Levine, 35, of Royal Oak. Self-diagnosed with Asperger’s in February 2003 (and later confirmed by physicians), Levine explained that “a lot of ‘Aspies’ take a real liking to the Internet and technology and they’re good at it because of their ability to really focus. If they take a job in that field, they will likely succeed because of their special aptitude.”

When Levine first heard of Auticon’s program to hire those with Asperger’s he was surprised. “My first reaction is that it’s usually the other way around. ‘Aspies’ are usually seen as a deterrent and can’t get their foot in the door at companies. The fact that Auticon specifically desires people with Asperger’s to be software testers and managers is great. And it makes sense.”

Avi Kapen

Those with autism often have trouble fitting into the working world, but under Mueller-Remus’s leadership, the Berlin-based company has created the right working environment for people with autism and a culture that draws upon their strengths. That environment is essential says Avi Kapen, 39, of West Bloomfield, Michigan who was diagnosed with Asperger’s at 18-years-old by Dr. Ami Klin, a world renown autism and Asperger syndrome expert. Kapen works as a circulation page at the West Bloomfield Public Library and says that due to having Asperger’s, his job suits him well. “I think in some ways my Asperger’s helps me with my job. They didn’t know I have Asperger’s when they hired me, but they see how my ability to remember facts and numbers makes me successful.”

Levine agrees. About to celebrate his fifth year on the job as the office administrative assistant at Country Place Condo Association in Northville, Michigan, Levine maintains that he’s well suited for the job as a result of the combination of it being the right working environment for him and a structured, routine-focused position. That recipe has proven successful for Auticon as well and they’re not the only company looking to a workforce of autistic people in order to grow. Auticon’s Belgian partner has also shown that jobs for autistic people in the area of software testing and quality assurance lead to corporate growth and financial success.

Mike Levine

Auticon argues that many with Asperger’s have a knack for finding patterns and flaws in gigantic calculations making them well suited for software testing. For Kapen, remembering obscure numbers and facts has been a part of his life since he was a child. He only has to hear a date – like a friend’s birthday – once and it will never escape his memory. His special talent is recalling little known sports statistics and trivia about politicians. Some might find those characteristics odd and only focus on the peculiar social skills, but increasingly people are recognizing the positives of those gifts and looking to take advantage of them.

In Germany, roughly 15 percent of people with autism are employed in the private sector due to their trouble with social interactions, a symptom of Asperger’s. The program at Auticon, however, uses job coaches to help its employees with customer relations. Participants in the study state the training allows them to feel valued as employees.

One of Auticon’s new software testers, Philip von der Linden, has found the program to be a life changing experience, saying, “That is what makes life valuable. To be needed. And if what you can do is appreciated and if what seems to be a weakness is turned into an asset.”

While those with autism have been challenged to integrate into the professional world in the past, companies like Auticon are not only giving them new opportunities, but are also demonstrating that those with special talent are integral employees. The future quality of software coming out of Berlin will be superior and we’ll all have Auticon’s autism program to thank. Hopefully American tech companies will soon follow suit.

Cross-posted to the Detroit Jewish News

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

Tu Bishvat, a Super Bowl Ad and Israel’s Soda Water Company

This Shabbat is one of the four Jewish New Years set forth in the Mishna. Tu Bishvat, or Jewish Arbor Day, occurs on the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Sh’vat. In addition to being a birthday for trees, the holiday is deeply connected to the agricultural cycle of the Land of Israel and in modern days has become a day for celebrating the environment and reminding us of our responsibility as good stewards of the land.

At the core of this ethic for environmental stewardship is the concept of bal tashchit – the ban on wonton destruction of the earth’s resources. This environmental principle, which includes waste reduction, should be a focus on the holiday of Tu Bishvat.

Daniel Birnbaum of SodaStream with Conservative Rabbis in Israel (Masorti Mission 2012)
Daniel Birnbaum of SodaStream speaking to Conservative rabbis in Israel

This value was articulated in a presentation I heard last month while I was visiting Israel. Together with a dozen of my rabbinic colleagues, we toured the headquarters of SodaStream, the makers of consumer home carbonated water products. Daniel Birnbaum, the CEO of publicly traded SodaStream, explained to our group the positive environmental impact of his products. “This is the new way to do soda. We’re revolutionizing it with a smarter way to enjoy soft drinks.”

In his presentation to our group, Birnbaum showed how SodaStream reduces the amount of packaging waste from cans and bottles. The company, he explained, also eliminates much of the pollution caused by the transport of bottled beverages. SodaStream has sponsored initiatives promoting waste reduction and improved quality of tap water. In his PowerPoint presentation, Birnbaum explained the alarming statistic that “460 billion bottles and cans manufactured every year, of which the vast majority are dumped as waste across parks, oceans and landfills.”

SodaStream's Daniel Birnbaum with Rabbi Jason Miller
With SodaStream’s Daniel Birnbaum at the Mishor Adumim production facility

In its most aggressive marketing campaign alerting the international community to the negative effects of plastic bottle waste, SodaStream displayed a 318-square foot cage in several countries. The cage contained 10,657 empty bottles and cans showing that the waste produced by one family over the course of five years from beverage containers can be replaced by a single SodaStream bottle. The “Cage Campaign” has now been on display in over 30 countries.

This aggressive marketing campaign erupted into controversy when one of SodaStream’s cages was erected in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2012. Coca-Cola demanded that SodaStream remove all of the empty products from the cages bearing Coca-Cola’s trademark logos and threatened to sue SodaStream if they didn’t comply. Birnbaum not only rebuffed Coca-Cola’s demands, but he went on the offensive by ordering the display of one of those cages right outside Coca-Cola’s headquarters in Atlanta.

Controversy is obviously something Birnbaum isn’t afraid of. Over the years he has taken a lot of heat for the location of SodaStream’s world headquarters in the territories outside of Jerusalem in the West Bank settlement of Mishor Adumim. The European Union’s highest court ruled in 2010 that SodaStream was not entitled to claim a “Made in Israel” exemption from EU customs payments because of the company’s primary manufacturing plant is technically located outside of Israel. Human right’s groups like Peace Now have long objected to SodaStream’s operations in the territories and publicly disparage SodaStream on the web.

Pro-Palestinian activists who advocate consumer boycotts of goods produced outside of Israel’s green line have protested SodaStream around the globe, saying the company has profited from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. They say Palestinian workers suffer from low wages and poor working conditions at SodaStream, but Birnbaum argues that none of that is true. For his part, Birnbaum claims he is a strong proponent of human rights, and that thanks to SodaStream thousands of local Palestinians in Mishor Adumim have good paying jobs. Those workers, he explains, would not be able to support their families without their jobs in SodaStream’s manufacturing plant.

In an effort to capitalize on SodaStream’s success, Birnbaum will be spending approximately $3.8 million on a 30-second spot during next month’s Super Bowl. Its recent “Setting the Bubbles Free” commercial, showing hundreds of soft drink bottles exploding when a person uses a SodaStream machine, was banned in the UK when television advertising monitoring agency Clearcast argued that it denigrates the bottled drink industry. Birnbaum is considering legal action in the UK and has countered publicly by asking, “Are we really being censored for helping to save the environment? This might be the first time in the world when an environmental approach has been shut down by the media to protect a traditional industry.” It will be interesting to see what Birnbaum and SodaStream have in store for the over 111 million Super Bowl viewers around the world.

I was quite impressed listening to Birnbaum speak passionately about SodaStream’s products and its environmental concern for the global good. The former CEO of Nike Israel (he also gained experience at Pillsbury and Procter & Gamble), was raised in a home in which strong Jewish values were preached. Birnbaum’s father was a Conservative rabbi who emphasized the importance of the State of Israel and philanthropic giving (Birnbaum is a major donor to the Masorti Judaism, the Conservative Movement’s Israeli affiliate). While Birnbaum, a Harvard MBA, is committed to his life as an executive businessman, he also gets a chance to participate as a leader in a synagogue for a few days each year. He travels to Cincinnati to serve as the High Holiday cantor of Adath Israel Congregation each Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur along with his wife Bat Ella, an accomplished Israeli musician.

Daniel Birnbaum, High Holiday Cantor at Adath Israel Congregation Cincinnati
Daniel Birnbaum with the High Holiday choir at Adath Israel Congregation

As Tu Bishvat approaches, I would encourage people to learn more about SodaStream and its positive impact on the environment. Yes, it is a publicly traded company on the NASDAQ with major investors and a goal of becoming a billion dollar company, but it also has a vision based on the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam — improving our earth. SodaStream will never be loved by the BDS (boycot-divest-sanction) movement, pro-Palestinian groups, or the big soda corporations like Coke and Pepsi. However, it is making a great product, putting thousands of at-risk Palestinians into the work force, and trying to make an impact in reducing the world’s waste from bottles and cans.

I guarantee that after SodaStream’s Super Bowl commercial airs, Daniel Birnbaum will be the topic of conversation around the world. He’s a guy who should be admired, not denigrated. So on this Tu Bishvat I hope people drink a soda water L’chayim to Daniel Birnbaum, set the bubbles free, and pledge to help eliminate waste caused by all those unnecessary plastic bottles that are ruining our environment. Happy Tu Bishvat!

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

Wishing Delmon Young Well in Philly

When the news first broke last April that Detroit Tigers outfielder Delmon Young had been arrested in New York City for making an anti-Jewish slur following a night of drinking, I wrote about my disappointment in him on this blog. I explained that, after hearing this news, it would be difficult for me to cheer for him even though he would continue to play for my beloved, hometown Detroit Tigers. In an op-ed for the Huffington Post, I wrote, “My oldest son is 8. In the past year he has become a die-hard Detroit Tigers fan… How am I supposed to explain to my son that Delmon Young was drunk, got into a street fight, yelled an anti-Semitic slur and got arrested?”

Delmon Young signs with Phillies - Rabbi Jason Miller

After reading my words in the Huffington Post, Delmon Young’s agent Joel Wolfe sent me an email explaining that “Del is a special kid, and nothing like the animal that the NY media portrayed him to be.” About a month later I was at the same dinner as Delmon’s other agent, Arn Tellem of Wasserman Media Group. We spoke for a while about Delmon, and again I was told that he’s a special kid who just needs the right mentoring to stay on the path to success. I took those words to heart and decided to try and give Delmon the benefit of the doubt for the rest of the season, but it wasn’t easy. Whenever he came up to bat I felt a little uneasy and would picture the scene on the sidewalk in front of his NYC hotel. I didn’t really think he was an anti-Semite and I wanted to just forget about the whole incident, but it was difficult.

Everyone in Detroit knew that Delmon would be released by the Tigers organization at the end of the season, regardless of his postseason performance. That would prove to be accurate. Even though Delmon, as the designated hitter, batted better than his teammates in the American League Championship Series against the Yankees and won the ALCS MVP award (he was called a “class act” during the award presentation by Jackie Autry), he was still sent packing. I was happy to see him go, but I was also ready to forgive.

In Judaism, we prioritize the concept of teshuva — repentance. Delmon Young made a costly mistake back in April, but he is not an avowed anti-Semite. He was drinking too much and let his emotions get the better of him. At the end of the day, I’m sure he’s the good kid that his agents (both Jewish) say he is. And now, he’s found a new home with the Philadelphia Phillies and I wish him well (unless the Tigers are facing the Phillies in the World Series of course!).

Delmon’s ultimate punishment was not the suspension or the ten days of community service he was forced to perform, but the permanent reminder of the incident. Like Jean Valjean, the protagonist of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, Delmon Young will carry a negative label with him for the rest of his career and likely for the rest of his life. His signing with the Phillies this week was proof of that. The acquisition of a player like Delmon Young should have warranted a mere mention in sports articles about recent off-season transactions, not entire commentaries.

CBS Sports broke the story that the General Manager of the Phillies, Ruben Amaro, is Jewish and was unsure about signing Delmon at first. According to the article, before Amaro agreed to the $750,000 guaranteed deal (down from the $6.75 million he made with the Tigers last year), he contacted one of my colleagues (Rabbi Josh Bennett), who had several conversations with Delmon last year following the incident. Amaro also spoke with local Philly rabbis and with someone at the Philadelphia Anti Defamation League. I’m quite certain that would mark the first time a baseball GM felt the need to run a potential player contract by the Jewish community before agreeing to the deal. Amaro spoke with CBS Sports’ John Heyman by phone:

“I certainly feel comfortable with the due diligence we put together. But it’s really up to Delmon to prove us right. I’m part Jewish, so it’s a concern to me,” said Amaro, whose mother is Jewish.
Ultimately, Amaro concluded that Young shouldn’t be kept from employment with them based on one incident, no matter how ugly. “He’s not an anti-Semite. He made a mistake,” Amaro said. “Hopefully, he can move on from that.”

So, in recognition of the importance of repentance and judging others with the benefit of the doubt, I wish Delmon Young the best in Philadelphia. I don’t suspect he will find himself getting in trouble again since I wholeheartedly believe he learned his lesson well. I have my doubts about how well he’ll perform in right-field for the Phillies (his defensive skills were inadequate in Detroit), but I think he will mature into the good person that those close to him say he is. And while the Detroit chapter of the Delmon Young saga is now closed, I will continue to follow his career and pray that he does whatever he needs to do in order to stay on the right moral path during his playing years and beyond. Good luck Delmon!

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

Google’s Android App Marketplace Offers Inspirational Hitler Quotes Apps

Apple has been criticized by mobile app makers for the difficult process involved in getting their apps into the AppStore. The reason for all the red tape in this process, however, is so Apple can approve each app for content ensuring there is no hate speech or racist material in the app. In France, Apple has even removed an app that was in violation of that country’s strong policy on anti-Semitism.

Google, on the other hand, has made it much easier for developers to offer their apps in Google’s Android marketplace called Google Play. According to Google’s website users are asked to “not distribute content that promotes hatred or violence towards groups of people based on their race or ethnic origin and religion.” When Google is notified of potential policy violation, it “may” review and take action by removing or restricting content, however, it doesn’t have the same screening processes in place that Apple does for its app marketplace. Google’s checklist for app developers to submit their creations for consideration in Google Play includes the requirement that one informs Google Play users of the app’s maturity level before publish. The available content rating levels are: Everyone, Low maturity, Medium maturity, and High maturity. However, Google does not provide for apps that are created in bad taste. A Google spokeswoman explained that the company removes apps that violate its policies against hate speech.

Such is the case with a new app for users in search of inspiration from non other than Adolf Hitler. One app in the Google Play store is simply called “Adolf Hitler.” The description states, “All about Adolf Hitler. Get everything in one place – Bio, Pictures, Videos and Quotes. Not only can you get them in one place, you can share all your favorites with your friends in a click.” Another app, Infamous Adolf Hitler Quotes, proclaims: “Looking for Adolf Hitler Quotes?? Then this is the App for you!” The apps often provide a quote of the day and allow the users to search a database of anti-Semitic quotes including such things as, “Jews are like mosquitoes that suck our blood.”

While quotes from The Fuhrer are searchable throughout the Web using any search engine in any browser, mobile apps dedicated to glorifying Hitler’s hate speech are something else entirely. Hitler’s writings, famous quotes and excerpts from Mein Kampf should be readily available for research purposes on the Web, however, Google should think twice before marketing mobile apps that celebrate the words that motivated the Holocaust.

According to the Anti-Defamation League website, the free app from kutaa provides users with vile quotes attributed to Hitler and has been installed by over 10,000 users within 30 days through Google Play. The Arabic-language app, “Hitler’s Sayings,” allows users to read and share what it describes as Hitler’s “beautiful sayings that we could benefit from in our lives” via social media networks. A description of the app says, “Hitler combines the charisma of the skillful physician and the grand juggler…Read in this application all of Hitler’s sayings and share them with your friends.”

These free apps (some have been downloaded as many times as 50,000 times) are not being used by Holocaust scholars or those seeking to gain a better understanding of the Third Reich. Rather, they are being downloaded and installed to extend the reach of Neo-Nazis in the U.S. While the Arabic language app Infamous Adolf Hitler quotes from the Arab app maker kutaa seems to have been removed from Google Play (it’s still available for download at AppsZoom), other mobile apps tauting Hitler as an inspirational leader are popping up in the Android app market.

The other issue with these Hitler apps that extol the Nazi leader is the vitriolic language in the comments section on the review pages of the apps. In the user review section of one of the free English-language apps dedicated to Hitler’s quotes, one of the more than a thousand reviewers called Hitler a great moral leader. Another user writes in a review dated August 2012 that the “app is so great and useful,” and explains that he wanted to learn how Hitler was able to “kill all the yahudi people.”

In September of last year, Google removed a mobile app of the conspiracy theory book The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Google eventually removed The Protocols app from its website amid a large public outcry. Google will continue to remove these apps that praise Hitler, but more Android apps will crop up to plague its app market. Google needs to be more vigilant in prohibiting such hate spewing apps from ever residing in Google Play in the first place.

Cross-posted to the Jewish Techs blog on The Jewish Week’s website

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

Gibson Guitars Gives Dave Schneider Hanukkah Gift

Cross-posted to The Huffington Post

Stories of airlines damaging travelers’ baggage are about as common as delayed flights these days, but a particularly dreadful mishap occurred recently. Dave Schneider, the lead guitarist of a Jewish band called the Leevees (with Guster’s Adam Gardner) that produces only Hanukkah-themed songs, was traveling on a flight from Buffalo to Detroit. The Delta flight went fine without any problems, but it was after landing at Detroit Metropolitan Airport that the nightmare began.

Dave Schneider of the Leevees Got a New Guitar from Gibson

Schneider, who also is the lead singer of the Zambonis, a band that only play songs about hockey, was told by Delta Airlines that he would have to check his vintage 1963 Gibson ES-335 TD guitar rather than carrying it on the flight with him. He even offered to purchase a seat on the plane for the guitar, but Delta refused. Upon landing in Detroit Schneider shot video footage from his cellphone of the baggage handlers moving his guitar off the plane, but there was no damage then. It was only later that he was informed that his cherished guitar was crushed between a service elevator and a loading dock at the gate in Detroit. Delta authorities quickly offered Schneider $1,000 for his vintage guitar, which was likely worth close to $10,000. Of course he declined Delta’s offer as inadequate. Even to repair the classic guitar would have cost more than Delta’s measly offering.

This isn’t the first time an airline has damaged a musician’s vintage guitar. A few years ago United Airlines broke Dave Carroll’s Taylor Guitar. Carroll famously wrote a song attacking United Airlines, which became a YouTube hit, and then subsequently penned a book about the power of social media and customer service. Schneider didn’t write any songs about Delta, but he did fill out the claim forms for damaged property after declining that $1,000 check from Delta. He never received a response. His two emails to Delta chief executive Richard Anderson were never answered. Schneider, under the pseudonym Dave Leevee, used that vintage guitar to play such Jewish holiday classics as “Latke Clan,” “How Do You Spell Channukkahh?” and “Goyim Friends.” Without the guitar, Schneider lost his mojo.

The crushed Gibson guitar belonging to Dave Schneider of the Leevees and Zambonis

And that’s when Gibson, the global musical and lifestyle-oriented company based in Nashville stepped forward to present the musician who sings about Hanukkah with a belated Hanukkah present. Schneider picked up his replacement guitar in New York last week from Gibson CEO and technology visionary Henry Juszkiewicz. “At Gibson we’re committed to music and those who love and appreciate their instruments,” Juszkiewicz said. “For musicians like Dave, instruments are practically members of their family. It was only right to replace his guitar.”

Schneider will be able to continue playing guitar and singing about Hanukkah and hockey thanks to Gibson’s generous gift. Where Delta left Schneider kvetching, Gibson left him kvelling. As far as air travel goes, it’s questionable if Dave Schneider will ever fly Delta again. If he does, you can bet he’ll likely send his guitar ahead of time on a different airline.

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

Sam Berns, Progeria and the Dave Matthews Band

2013 ended with the tragic passing of a Jewish boy named Sam who inspired millions and 2014 has begun with the tragic passing of a Jewish boy named Sam who inspired millions.

On the same cold, grey December day on which my own family buried my 11-day-old nephew, the Sommer family buried their 8-year-old boy Samuel Sommer who succumbed to the refractory acute myeloid leukemia he had been diagnosed with a year-and-a-half prior. By some bizarre coincidence not only did Rabbi Phyllis Sommer and Rabbi Michael Sommer bury their son on that same day, but also at the same Jewish cemetery that my family had said goodbye to my nephew Rylan Foster Gelb only hours earlier. Superman Sam’s fight to survive and beat the leukemia was journaled beautifully on the blog Rabbi Phyllis maintained during their challenging journey. And now, 30 days have passed since Superman Sam was laid to rest and the blog continues to inspire so many.


This past Friday, another Sam succumbed to a disease. Sam Berns, the Jewish teen who lived with Progeria passed away after so many learned his story from the HBO documentary “Life According to Sam.” I watched this documentary last night, and knowing that Sam had just died, I was overcome with tears. Sam’s parents Dr. Leslie Gordon and Dr. Scott Berns worked tirelessly throughout Sam’s much too short life committed to curing this disease. Progeria is the same disease that my teacher Rabbi Harold Kushner’s son died from and was the impetus for his book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”. As is evidenced by the film, Sam’s parents weren’t only passionate about finding a cure for Progeria for their own son’s sake, but for all of the children throughout the world who age too quickly and end up dying as they reach their teenage years.

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Who Owns Jewish Ritual?

My rabbinic networks have been abuzz about the second episode of a new reality TV show on TLC called “The Sisterhood.” I first learned of the controversial episode when someone Tweeted the clip to me asking me what I thought. I then sent an article about the episode from The Christian Post to my colleagues in Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders program and an interesting discussion ensued.

TLC’s new reality TV show “The Sisterhood” has been panned by Christians for disrespecting Christianity and by Jewish people for using Jewish ritual in a Christian framework.

The new reality show features Texas couple Brian Lewis and his wife Tara and their children. The show premiered on New Year’s day. In the second episode, the family discusses their preparation for their son’s upcoming bar mitzvah. The couple’s 13-year-old son Trevor however isn’t Jewish and neither are his parents. In fact, Trevor’s father is a Christian pastor who was raised in a Jewish household before converting to Christianity before marriage.

In the show Tara speaks directly to the camera, explaining, “To celebrate our Jewish heritage, we are throwing him a Bar Mitzvah. A Christian Bar Mitzvah.” Brian explains it as more than just a passing of age ceremony and more of  a social event.

The notion of a Christian boy celebrating a bar mitzvah was enough to irk many Jewish viewers, but the show ruffled even more feathers by using Jewish ritual items for the occasion. Pastor Brian reveals to his son the tallit that he will wear for his ceremony.

This raises the question of whether Jewish people “own” such concepts as a bar mitzvah and traditionally Jewish ritual garb like a tallit. After all, the Jewish people were not the first people to create entering adulthood ceremonies or prayer shawls (those are likely borrowed from the ancient Egyptians). So, the episode actually encourages an interesting conversation about the kishke (gut) reaction to seeing a religious Christian family appropriating a Jewish life-cycle event and Jewish ritual items. Interestingly, some Jewish people even took exception with the cake prepared for Trevor’s bar mitzvah resembling a Torah scroll.

I’ll get back to the Christian bar mitzvah, but two very recent events forced me to consider these issues as well. Sitting in a session on Tuesday morning at CES (the Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas, a gentleman wearing tzitzit (a four cornered undergarment with ritual fringes hanging out) sat down next to me. I immediately noticed that he wasn’t wearing a kippah (yarmulke) although the four braided fringes complete with threads of blue were proudly dangling around his waist. It didn’t take me long to realize that he was a religious Christian and not Jewish. Eavesdropping on the conversation he was having with the woman on the other side of me, I heard him explain that he and his family live a devout Christian lifestyle in Texas in accordance with both the Old Testament and the New Testament.

Rohan Marley shows off his gold Jewish Star necklace as I display my gold chai necklace.

The second event took place yesterday at CES when I visited with Bob Marley’s son Rohan at the House of Marley booth. House of Marley is a headphones company and part of the Marley family of brands including the Marley Mellow Mood drink that is owned by Bob Marley’s family and investors from the Detroit Jewish community including Gary Shiffman and Alon Kaufman. Rohan, a former football player for the University of Miami and the Canadian Football League, proudly displays a gold Jewish star around his neck. When I asked him why he wears a Jewish star I got a heartfelt ten-minute explanation of how his Rastafarian belief draws from both the Old Testament and the New Testament. He told me that the Jewish star is his way of reminding himself daily of the ethics of the Jewish biblical tradition and how that is the foundation of Christianity.

While some would be uncomfortable with gentiles wearing tzitzit or a Jewish star necklace, my feeling is that we Jews don’t have the trademark on such things. Yes, they are inherently Jewish in our time and in our culture, but what is preventing someone else from adopting those items and connecting their own narrative to them. Who says that only Jews can get married under a chuppah or dance the hora at a wedding? Who says that a Christian boy with Jewish ancestry can’t have a ceremony on his 13th birthday called a bar mitzvah? It might make some Jews uncomfortable, but that gut reaction should lead to a conversation about why it elicits that response.

My colleague, Rabbi Eliot Pearlson of Miami, provided me with some insightful links and images on such topics as specifically Christian tzitizit and tallit, Christian chuppas and ketubas (wedding contracts), South Koreans studying Talmud, and Christian Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. We are living in interesting times, but religions have historically borrowed and appropriated different traditions and rituals from each other.

Another one of my colleagues, Rabbi Joshua Ratner, offered that he takes exception with non-Jews “picking up rituals they (and often we) don’t understand just because they look cool. I have far less of an issue with imitation/syncretism if the object being ‘borrowed’ has some understood meaning that results in others wanting to borrow it, rather than its aesthetic content. But that just begs the question–to be Rabbis Without Borders, if we know that religious syncretism is a way of life, do we now have an obligation to educate the non-Jewish public as well as our particular Jewish communities?”

That comment reminded me of when I was a child and my father would let me borrow his tools. If you’re going to use my hammer, he would say, let me first show you how to use it correctly. But does borrowing something mean the borrower has to use it the same way the lender does? Shouldn’t everyone have the right to determine which religious rituals they want to use from other faiths and have the ability to put their own spin on them without criticism? As uncomfortable as that may make some of us, I think the answer is yes.

Here’s the clip from the “A Christian Bar Mitzvah” episode of The Sisterhood:

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

Shaquille O’Neal Says Shabbat Shalom & Other Hebrew Phrases

A few years ago I saw one of those quick “catch a celebrity getting into his car” video clips on TMZ.com in which NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal walked out of a restaurant and wished all his Jewish friends a L’shanah Tovah. It was right before Rosh Hashanah and it was circulated pretty quickly around the Web.

I had forgotten about that video when I asked Shaq to say “Shabbat Shalom” into my cellphone yesterday. My friend and fellow native Detroiter Lisa Lis got me hooked on video recording celebs saying those two Hebrew words a couple years ago and I’ve already collected several which I uploaded to my YouTube.com channel.

Shaquille O'Neal with Rabbi Jason - Shaq Speaks Hebrew

Yesterday at CES in Las Vegas I heard a wonderful interview with Russell Simmons, the Hip Hop pioneer and entrepreneur. After the interview he graciously offered a “Shabbat Shalom”. After meeting Russell, who is the president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding along with Rabbi Marc Schneier who serves as chairman, I had the opportunity to meet Curtis Jackson, better known as 50 Cent. Something told me that he wouldn’t be so into saying Shabbat Shalom, but Shaq was more than willing. In fact, he took the time to ask me what “Shabbat Shalom” means and when it’s appropriate to say it. He even surprised me with some other Hebrew phrases (“Baruch Hashem” and “L’shanah Tovah”). Shaq and I shmoozed for a while inside the Monster booth at CES. When he saw the large American Express bag I was carrying with me, he asked where I got it because he needed a large bag to carry his gifts from Monster. I gave him the bag and in return he presented with me a nice pair of Monster DNA Pro headphones. A great deal!

I suppose had I gotten 50 Cent to say “Shabbat Shalom” on video it would have been the triple trifecta of Shabbat Shalom greetings in one day from three uber-successful entrepreneurs in the African American community. All three gentlemen struck me as very impressive, nice guys who are each doing great things to promote technology and entertainment in the 21st century.

The Shabbat Shalom videos of Shaq and Russell Simmons are below:

Early Hanukkah in 2013: Jewish Calendar Fun

Whenever I’m asked if the Jewish holidays are coming early or late this year, I promptly answer that they’ll be coming on time. And that’s partially true. Rosh Hashanah will always arrive on the first day of the Jewish month of Tishrei just as Hanukkah will always begin on the 25th of Kislev. But the Jewish holidays will be coming early this year and already people are realizing that the first night of Hanukkah 2013 takes place on Wednesday, November 27, 2013, which will actually be the night before Thanksgiving. And that’s unusual.

The Jewish Calendar

The Jewish calendar situation this year is unique. In fact, it has not occurred since 1899 and will only occur once more. Ever. And that won’t be until the year 2089.

The Jewish holidays must occur in their appointed season according to the Torah. To ensure this, there is a leap year that adds an extra month (Adar II) to the Jewish calendar to adjust for the differential between the Jewish calendar’s lunar cycle and the Gregorian (secular) calendar’s 365 day solar cycle. This year, we will see the earliest that Jewish holidays can fall beginning with Purim on Feb 24, 2013 (a Jewish holiday that usually occurs in March). Later on this year, just as students are returning to school following Labor Day we will observe Rosh Hashanah starting on the evening of September 4. We’ll also celebrate the majority of the festival of Sukkot before the Fall equinox even takes place even though Sukkot is an autumnal holiday (the law states this is acceptable so long as the final day of the holiday, Hoshanah Rabbah, occurs after the Fall equinox). Of course, what most people are talking about is the idea of lighting the first candle of Hanukkah the day before we put the Thanksgiving turkeys in the oven.

I find this whole thing fascinating. Especially as this might be the only time in my life that I see the holidays falling this extremely early. I’ve always been intrigued with the Jewish calendar. My first real introduction to the intricacies of the “luach hashanah” was in 1996 when Rabbi Moshe Tutnauer was serving as an interim rabbi in Metro Detroit. In his small office at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Michigan he had dozens of instant lessons posted to the wall. As a seasoned interim rabbi these instant lessons came in handy.

Rabbi Moshe Tutnauer

When I went to Rabbi Tutnauer’s office one day ready to learn whatever he would teach me, he suggested we study the Jewish calendar. His lesson included the four different new years in the Jewish tradition as spelled out in the mishna as well as the way the calendar was fixed so that festivals like Passover occurred only in their appointed season. He also taught me the helpful mnemonic of lo adu rosh, which reminds us that Rosh Hashanah can never fall on a Sunday, Wednesday or Friday. The reason the calendar is fixed that way is so that Yom Kippur can never be on a Friday, Sunday or Tuesday. (A full-day fast that close to Shabbat would be too big of a challenge and if Yom Kippur fell on a Tuesday, then Hoshanah Rabbah would be on Shabbat, and we could not beat the willow branches.) Rabbi Tutnauer’s lesson proved helpful a few years later when I found myself already versed in the logistical ins and outs of the Jewish calendar when studying Tractate Rosh Hashanah in a Talmud class in rabbinical school.

Several years ago David Letterman quipped in a Late Show monologue, “Happy Rosh Hashanah, it’s the Jewish new year and the year is 5768. I, uh, it’s funny I’m still writing 5767 on my checks.” Well, unlike Dave, most of us use the Gregorian calendar in our everyday lives, but as Jews we must be attuned to the Jewish calendar as well. It is the rhythm of our Jewish lives. Perhaps this year’s anomaly in the Jewish calendar will cause people to learn more about the lunar calendar that governs the Jewish year.

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