Spelling Knaidel and Bravo’s Princesses Reality TV Show

We Jews have arrived! That seemed to be the general sentiment on my Facebook news feed last night as word traveled around the social network that the winning word in the 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee was “knaidel” – the Yiddish word for matzah ball. Most excited Facebook users chimed in on the variant transliterated spellings of the Yiddish word wondering how the organizers of the annual spelling bee could agree on just one accepted spelling.

Arvind Mahankali, the 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee champ spelled Knaidel for the win (NBC)

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Plastic Surgeon Michael Gray Reconstructs the Social Network

I jumped at the opportunity as soon as I received the press release from Jackie Headapohl, the editor at The Detroit Jewish News, asking me if I’d like to interview Dr. Michael Gray, the well-known plastic surgeon here in Michigan. The press release described a new social network called Pegged that Dr. Gray had created. It sounded as if this cosmetic surgeon was about to give Facebook a Face Lift. I spent an hour in Dr. Gray’s office learning about Pegged and the entire time I kept thinking that people will both love and hate this controversial social networking site. Here’s the front page article from this week’s Detroit Jewish News:

Plastic Surgeon Reconstructs Social Media

Dr. Michael Gray, a popular and successful plastic surgeon, spends his days transforming the way people look on the outside. But one thing he can’t do is fix who they are on the inside. That doesn’t mean he isn’t interested in trying though.

Dr. Michael Gray - Pegged

 

Gray, who is from New York, heads the Michigan Cosmetic Surgery Center and Skin Deep Spa in West Bloomfield. He wondered whether he could at least learn more about people’s character on the inside and create a social platform that would force them to try and change themselves internally. “The world is broken. What if we had a resource to assess who we meet? Would we be able to make better decisions about what we do in life? Would people be self-reflective after they get a review? Would they change?”

 

Gray felt the social networking sites already in existence, like Facebook, were not helpful because the users were in control of their profiles and able to create the type of persona they wanted to portray. So Gray began to envision a social networking site that would promote greater self-awareness and help people become better. What he came up with will no doubt be met with mixed reactions.

 

A NEW SOCIAL NETWORK

Pegged (pegged.com) will be controversial. The networking site (a mobile app is in production and will be released soon) will be a painful reality for many people. All social networking sites currently allow users to create their own profile, but in an interesting twist on the idea of social network profile creation, Pegged allows someone else to create a person’s profile. If you don’t like the waitress at the restaurant you can “peg” her by creating an account and detailing why she missed the mark. If a former friend is spreading rumors about you, you’ll have the opportunity to publicly call them out on their transgression. On the other end, the site will be beneficial for those looking to hire or date someone with more accurate data available for background checks.

Dr. Michael Gray - Pegged

“When I hire staff for my practice every candidate looks great on their resume and in their initial interview,” Gray explained. “It usually takes about six months for their true colors to show. I just don’t have time for that so I want to be able to look someone up and immediately understand what type of person they really are.”

 

Gray believes the “opinion-built profile” through the assessment of others will be a tool that could allow Pegged to ultimately make humanity better. While the process won’t be without pain, he thinks it will be a path to insight. “The web and mobile app will be entertaining and fun, but at its core, the intention is to bring people into accountability for their interactions with others, and to offer them opportunities for self-reflection and growth.”

 

HOW IT WORKS

Through the comments and ratings made by others on a profile, Pegged follows people in their daily lives of social interaction and assigns them a “humanity score.” Over time, a graph will be produced showing the ups and downs (positives and negatives) of the quality of that person’s interactions chronologically in their lifetime. Gray believes this graph will provide users with valuable information about whether or not to date, hire, work for, or join a group with another person. Individuals will rate and review each other anonymously which will no doubt be one of the more controversial aspects of the site.

 

Concerned about bullying, Gray insists that there are many safe-guards built into the system so that no one is being rated based on religion, gender, race, age, or sexual orientation, and there is always the opportunity to respond to any comment. Gray won’t get into the way in which Pegged will prevent bullying, but says it will be similar to the measures Facebook implements to keep hate speech and abuse off their site. In an effort to resolve conflict between two parties, Gray is hoping to add a basis for mediation on the site.

 

The most controversial element of this platform is that even if a person chooses to live anonymously and social-media-free, unless one avoids people all together, someone will eventually join him or her to the website. “You can live like an ostrich with your head in the sand and pretend Pegged doesn’t exist, or you can participate and maintain some control through responding to posts about you,” Gray says. “Of course you will get people who lie, or who are haters, but in the long run, I believe that if you’re a good person, it’s going to pan out.”

 

Dr. Michael Gray is known for helping people improve their external image, but in this new endeavor he might have created the technology to help people do their own surgery on their character. Perhaps Pegged will be a tool to better help individuals prepare for the process of repentance on Yom Kippur.

 

Bidding on The World to Come on eBay

Those who read Milton Steinberg’s masterpiece novel “As a Driven Leaf” will remember that eternal life is a reward given for the fulfillment of two mitzvot (commandments), namely the honoring of one’s parents and the shooing of the mother bird from the nest before taking her eggs. However, yesterday those who wanted to taste eternal life could have simply logged into the preeminent online auction website eBay.com and offered a bid on heaven.

 

Ari Mandel of Teaneck, New Jersey, a self-proclaimed former Ultra-Orthodox Jew, listed his place in The World To Come on eBay for a mere 99 cents. Titled “My Portion in Olam Habaah (Heaven)”, Mandel says he did it as a joke and didn’t expect that bidders would bid it up to $100,000.

 

eBay user Ari Mandel auctioned off his portion of the World to Come on eBay

 

Since the auction “item” violated eBay’s terms of service it was quickly taken down from the website. Mandel told the Jewish Daily Forward that “it was a joke that ran away from me… when it reached $100,000 I didn’t really expect to get that money. It was nice to fantasize, but I didn’t think it was going to happen.”

 

Mandel, 31, included several references to the Jewish concept of Olam Habah (the World to Come) and used common Yiddish phrases in his auction listing. He claims to have simply done this as a joke and tells those who took it seriously or were offended by his harmless prank to “chill out”.

 

The Forward reports that Mandel was raised in an ultra-Orthodox community in upstate New York, but left the community about seven years ago. He is now a divorced father of one child and a student who works as a part-time translator. While eBay didn’t allow his auction to last very long, he was able to get his joke spread pretty wide thanks to the speed of the Internet. For those who held out hope that they could really get a spot in heaven by a simple click of a computer mouse button and a six-figure payment, keep working on it. You’ll have to go back to honoring your parents and shooing away mother birds.

 

This isn’t the first time that eBay has been used to auction off an intangible Jewish concept. Back in 2006 on this blog I wrote about a man who used eBay to auction off his chametz (leavened products) before Passover (see below). It turned out to be a great way to raise money for the Ziv Tzedakah Fund, Danny Siegel’s wonderful nonprofit organization.

 

 

Opening the Doors of Jewish Education

I’ve been thinking a lot about the term “Opening the Doors” and Jewish education lately. For the past several years I’ve been a committee member of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit’s “Opening the Doors Program” which advocates for students with diverse learning or behavioral challenges so they are able to participate in a quality Jewish educational environment with their peers.

 

Run locally in Michigan through the Federation’s Alliance for Jewish Education, the Opening the Doors Program currently empowers nearly 1,000 students. I became involved with the program in 2008 as the director of ATID: Alliance for Teens in Detroit, the Metro Detroit area Conservative Movement’s weekly Hebrew High School program. Working with the Opening the Doors director Ellen Maiseloff we were able to place a paraprofessional in our program to ensure that the teens with learning challenges were able to participate in the classes without too many problems.

 

Detroit’s Opening the Doors Program celebrates 18 years of helping Jewish students with learning challenges

 


The Opening the Doors program is celebrating its 18th year this evening and will feature attorney Richard Bernstein, a national advocate for people with disabilities (Ricky and I attended Andover High School together in the early 90s). I love the name of the program because it truly does open the doors of Jewish education for so many young people who suffer from learning disabilities. For far too long the public schools were putting the necessary resources in place to help students with learning and behavioral challenges, but our Jewish day schools and complementary schools (Hebrew schools) were lagging behind. The Opening the Doors program has made it possible for so many students with learning challenges to be able to succeed in Jewish learning endeavors with the appropriate level of assistance.

 

I’ve also been thinking about the term “Opening the Doors” as it relates to Jewish education lately because a woman who opened the doors for me to become a Jewish educator passed away last week. Aviva Hoffman of East Lansing had been a Hebrew School teacher for several decades when she was diagnosed with advanced stage breast cancer in the summer of 1994. She was slated to teach the 4th grade class at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in East Lansing three days a week, but her cancer treatment schedule would make that an impossibility. Her husband and the rabbi of the synagogue, Rabbi Mort Hoffman, was told that an incoming freshman at Michigan State University might be able to fill in for his wife. That freshman was me.

 

With Rabbi Mort Hoffman in May 1998 and in April 2013 (a month before his wife Aviva passed away)

Before classes began that semester in late August 1994 Rabbi Hoffman called me in my dorm room on Michigan State’s campus in South Case Hall and explained the situation. He told me that his wife, a native Israeli, would be undergoing treatment for breast cancer and would not be able to teach. He told me he would provide me with more details when we met and he sent a taxi to pick me up and bring me to the synagogue. In his office, he assured me that I wasn’t too young to teach ten hours a week of Hebrew School (I had just turned 18). He gave me a key to the synagogue building and the alarm code, showing me how to lock up on Tuesdays and Thursdays after I finished teaching. A few weeks later he added a high school class to my weekly schedule of teaching (a few of the students in that class were older than I was by a couple months).

 

As it turned out Aviva Hoffman’s cancer treatment was successful but she chose to retire rather than return to teaching. And so I continued to teach those 4th grade students for the next three years preparing them for bar and bat mitzvah. I’m still in touch with a handful of those students today (one just announced on Facebook that she’s expecting her first baby). Aviva Hoffman might never have realized that she opened the doors of Jewish education for me as a teacher, but I am grateful that her husband called me almost twenty years ago. Had he not, I likely would not be a rabbi today.

 

The doors of Jewish education must open for students with learning challenges. They also must open to provide opportunities for potential teachers. I am grateful for Metro Detroit’s “Opening the Doors” program and I salute it on its 18th anniversary. The student helped by the resources of this program could become one of tomorrow’s most important Jewish educators. And I am also grateful for that phone call I received from Rabbi Mort Hoffman back in 1994. Whether he (or Aviva) realized it at the time, he truly opened the doors of Jewish education for me as a teacher.

 

May the memory of Aviva Hoffman, a beloved Jewish educator, endure for blessings.

The Jewish Infatuation with Jewish Baseball Players

About a month ago, just before Opening Day of the 2013 Major League Baseball season, I received an email from a newspaper reporter who asked if I had time available to discuss Jewish baseball players. I had recently read a fascinating review of John Rosengren’s new Hank Greenberg book in the Wall Street Journal and the relationship between baseball and Judaism was very much on my mind. So naturally I agreed to talk with the reporter. In his email, Charley Honey (love that name!) of the Grand Rapids Press wrote:

I’m working on a column about Hank Greenberg, a boyhood hero of my late father, who grew up in Detroit. A new bio of Hank, by John Rosengren, deals a lot with the challenges he faced as the first Jewish baseball star in the Bigs. I would like to talk with you about your perspective on Greenberg’s impact on sports and culture, and how baseball has served as an entree into American life for racial and religious minorities.

Always being on the lookout for tie-ins between the greatest game and the world of faith, I thought Opening Day and this new bio seemed like a good opportunity. I realize rabbis like you are very busy this Passover week, but if you could carve out half an hour or so to talk to me within the next few days I’d love the chance. My column is due Tuesday morning. Of course, I will not be available after 4 p.m. Monday. 🙂

Charley and I had a great conversation that lasted well over an hour. I explained that there is a certain fetish we Jews have with Jewish baseball players. As Joseph Epstein wrote in his WSJ review of Rosengren’s book, it’s difficult for most baseball fans to come up with a list of Methodist, Baptist or Catholic Major League ballplayers, but for some reason we can all create our lineup of the best Jewish ballplayers who ever played the game. There’s a certain pride that we Jews feel for our heroes like Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax.

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