Role of the 21st Century Rabbi

A recent editorial in The Forward demonstrates how much the American rabbinate has changed in the 21st century. The economy has made it difficult for many rabbis to find good jobs; and for them to keep good jobs when the synagogue or organization falls on tough financial times. A reduction in the number of congregations due to closures and mergers has also caused a dearth of desirable positions for rabbis in the U.S. and Canada. But there are other factors involved as well. New rabbinical schools (Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Ziegler at the American Jewish University, Hebrew College, and the Academy for Jewish Religion) have cropped up in the past fifteen years increasing the number of new rabbis looking for work. The Internet has also made it much easier for the laity to learn synagogue skills — life-cycle officiation, prayer leading, and teaching — that may ultimately reduce the need for a rabbi, although I don’t believe that to be the case.

As the Forward editorial makes clear, “the role of rabbi is being challenged as never before.” Some sociologists like Prof. Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University predicted precisely such a change in the American rabbinate based on shifting demographics and the needs of the community. However, I don’t see this as a crisis in American Jewry. Rather, I find this to be an interesting opportunity for rabbis to become more entrepreneurial — both as a way to be necessary and to make a significant contribution to our people. Rabbis who see this as a chance to reinvent their rabbinate will ultimately be the most successful in the new era of Jewish life. And that holds true not only for American rabbis, but for rabbis throughout the Jewish world who have the entrepreneurial spirit.

I’m currently taking part in a Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) Rabbinic Cabinet Mission to Ukraine and Israel, and writing this blog post on a plane headed from Kiev to Tel Aviv along with a few dozen of my colleagues from the multitude of denominations. One thing I’ve noticed on this mission is that when rabbis meet each other for the first time, in general, they no longer ask each other “Which congregation do you lead?” Rather, the question is something along the lines of, “Where are you from and what do you do?” Rabbis today are exploring much different rabbinic paths of leadership than in previous generations. Growing up I always thought the role of the rabbi was solely in a synagogue. All of the rabbinic role models I had as a child were pulpit rabbis. Today, much has changed and the majority of rabbis do not work in congregations.

Talented rabbis are working in day schools, Jewish Community Centers, camping agencies, communal organizations, college campus institutions, and philanthropic foundations. They are also cobbling together two and three part-time jobs in ways never imagined in previous generations. Several entrepreneurial rabbis are taking a page out of the Chabad emissary playbook and founding new congregations and small prayer communities where there is a need. While not an easy task, these rabbis are finding the “start-up” experience to be exhilarating, significant and spiritually fulfilling. Rabbis are also freelancing their skills more often. As the number of Jewish families and singles unaffiliated with a congregation rises, there is an increased need for rabbis to perform life-cycle leadership roles. With the growth of the internet it has become easy for people to identify rabbis to officiate at a baby naming ceremony, wedding, funeral or unveiling.

A recent article in The Jewish Week showed a new trend for private bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies, independent of synagogues, that is prevalent on the East Coast. And that trend is spreading to the rest of the country. As a rabbi who is not affiliated with a congregation, I am called upon often to lead life-cycle ceremonies and I know that is the case with my colleagues around the country who likewise aren’t working in a congregation. Our culture of desiring the best products has reached into the religious leadership marketplace as well. A Jewish couple no longer feels compelled to have the rabbi of their childhood congregations preside at their wedding ceremony. Instead they will select the rabbi who they believe will create the most meaningful, memorable experience. So too with other life-cycle events like funerals. I’m often asked to perform the weddings of young people with whom I developed a relationship working as a rabbi on a campus Hillel or at a Jewish summer camp. Many of these young people have moved away from their childhood communities and don’t have a meaningful relationship with the rabbi of their parents’ congregation, but like everything else in life they are seeking the personable, meaningful, and memorable.

I believe that while laypeople may be able to perform many of the functions traditionally reserved for rabbis, there is no replacement for the vast array of skills a rabbi brings after years of training. A one-year online rabbinic program may be a worthwhile endeavor for many spiritually seeking Jewish people who are not able to attend a five- or six-year rabbinic training program, but they will not be a legitimate substitute for a rabbi. As the Forward editorial articulated, “For many American Jews, there is no substitute for the penetrating power of a brilliant sermon, or the comfort offered by a rabbi who knew the dying person before she became ill. There is no one else to mold and lead a religious community, to carry on and interpret our great tradition of scholarship, or to stand as a moral lighthouse in this foggy time. No one else to represent ourselves to ourselves, and ourselves to other people. Which is why defining and sustaining the role of the modern rabbi is one of the most vital challenges before the American Jewish community today.”

I don’t believe the rabbinate is in crisis, but I do believe that the most resourceful and entrepreneurial rabbis will be the ones to emerge successful in the Jewish world. Professional programs like Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders fellowship have realized this and are helping guide rabbis in the new rabbinate. The rabbis who embrace rather than dismiss the new realities of Jewish life will be the ones to make positive contributions to their community in particular and to global Jewry in general. And those rabbis who don’t dwell on the past (“the good ole days of the rabbinate”), but seek out modern innovations to guide their leadership and influence will be the most dynamic Jewish leaders of the future.

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

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

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

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

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

Jewish Children and Halloween: Point-Counterpoint

Tomorrow night is Halloween. Perhaps the only Jewish custom concerning Halloween is the debate as to whether it’s an appropriate celebration for Jewish children. Much has been written on both sides of the argument, but I have never addressed it here on this blog. This year, I decided to offer a point-counterpoint exchange answering the question “Is Halloween Kosher?” — Meaning: Is Halloween an acceptable experience for Jewish children in America? My friend and local colleague Rabbi Aaron Starr does not condone his children’s participation in Halloween while I do. Feel free to leave your own opinion in the comments below.

Rabbi Aaron Starr

POINT | It is hard to say “no” those whom we love the most. But, as parents, we know there are times when our sacred task is to teach and to guide, and thus to decline lovingly our children’s requests to do that which we as their caretakers know is dangerous physically or spiritually. For example, despite the vast commercialization and de-emphasis on the religious side of Christmas and Easter, Jewish parents should not allow their children to celebrate these Christian holidays. Likewise, Jewish parents should warmly steer our children away from the celebration of Halloween. Instead, Jewish living should be offered as the fun, meaningful, impactful path our children ought to take.

According to ABC News, Halloween dates back to a Celtic holiday when spirits were believed to rise from their graves, and costumes were used to fool the spirits in hope that farmers’ land would survive through the winter. Later, Christians assimilated Halloween into their own religion as the night before November 1’s “All Saints’ Day”. Then in the 19th century, Irish immigrants adapted their own native customs to the American celebration of Halloween, carving pumpkins into lanterns to honor the souls they believed were stuck in purgatory. What is clear is that the American celebration of Halloween is a product of strong pagan and Christian traditions that have been overly commercialized by twentieth and now twenty-first century candy and costume companies.

How much better it would be for our children and our People to encourage our kids to celebrate Jewish holidays with equal passion and excitement as others do Halloween! It seems to me far more uplifting to dress our children up in celebration of Purim and to give away gifts of food to our friends and those in need than to celebrate a pagan-Christian holiday by parading through dark streets in scary costumes receiving or even begging for candy from strangers.

Aaron Starr is a rabbi at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Michigan. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiStarr.


Rabbi Jason Miller

COUNTERPOINT | Our children (like us) are growing up in two worlds. They are living in Jewish homes, infused with Jewish values and traditions, and as participants in a vibrant Jewish Diaspora community. But, our children also live in a secular society in which certain “holidays” and their customs have become part of the fabric of that society.

While I would never condone Jewish children celebrating such Christian holidays as Christmas or Easter, I don’t see the problem in them participating in Halloween. This American tradition may draw its roots from troubling origins (like Thanksgiving), but over the centuries it has been become re-imagined as a fun, neighborhood experience. To draw a connection from the 21st century observance of Halloween to Samhain or All Hallows Eve is shortsighted and silly. I was unaware of the Celtic, Pagan and Christian connections to Halloween as an adult, and I suspect that will be the case for my children as well.

Today’s practice of Halloween seems innocent enough for me to allow my children to participate without hesitation. Our Halloween tradition consists of pumpkin picking (also used to decorate our sukkah) and then carving, selecting appropriate costumes (often recycled from Purim), and then walking our neighborhood with friends to go door-to-door collecting candy. There is no begging or threatening for these gifts of chocolate bars and lollipops; only the sweet sounds of repeated “pleases” and “thank yous” from the mouths of adorable children. Halloween is a night when the neighborhood comes alive. It’s an opportunity to catch up with neighbors as the cold winter looms. Upon our return home we sort through the collection of candy identifying the kosher sweets to keep and the non-kosher and undesirable ones to be donated.

To forbid our children to participate in Halloween is to pretend we’re living in a gated shtetl, ignorant of the American society with which our Jewish lives coexist. I have no problem saying “no” to those I love, but I also believe in the importance of making thoughtful, sensible decisions when there’s no harm to fear.

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

Patrilineal "Dissent": Solving the Jewish Status Problem

My mother isn’t/wasn’t Jewish, my father is. I was raised Reform, had a Bat mitzvah, [was Jewishly educated, celebrated holidays, identify as Jewish, participated in the Jewish community, did not participate in or celebrate any other faith or religion,] etc. If I have children with a man recognized as fully Jewish, how would they be seen in the eyes of Israel and the American Jewish community (particularly the Conservative movement)? How stable are Israel’s laws around this — could they change in 10 years? What about Halachah (Jewish law)? I would really appreciate an answer, even if it’s not what I want to hear. Thank you!

This is the question I was presented with from the website Jewish Values Online. Over the past few years I have answered dozens of values-based questions from this website. I haven’t dodged a single question, and I’ve attempted to respond to each questioner in a timely fashion. Admittedly, I have procrastinated writing a response to this question for several months.

Why? Because I am a Conservative rabbi and this is perhaps the most challenging question that a Conservative rabbi can be asked in the beginning of the 21st century. My Reform and Orthodox colleagues were able to respond to this question in a much more timely fashion. The Reform rabbi is able to cite his movement’s historic 1983 resolution establishing that “if the child is raised exclusively as a Jew and one parent is Jewish, then the child is recognized as a Jew in Reform communities regardless of the gender of the Jewish parent.” The Orthodox rabbi frames his answer with words like “difficult” and “painful” but ultimately cites Halacha (Jewish law) as unable to recognize the children (or grandchildren) of a Jewish man and non-Jewish woman as Jews without benefit of conversion.

Like many Conservative rabbis this issue hits home with me. I have a first cousin who, by definition, is not considered Jewish according to Halacha. That means that according to the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, of which I’m a member, I am not permitted to officiate at her wedding should she marry an individual deemed Jewish according to Halacha. That marriage would be considered an intermarriage without a formal conversion, and the children of that marriage would not be considered Jewish from a Halachic definition. This cousin has been raised Jewish, attended Hebrew School, became a bat mitzvah in a Reform congregation and considers herself Jewish. To complicate matters, her younger brother underwent a formal conversion in the mikveh after having a bris on the eighth day and is therefore regarded as Jewish according to Halacha. I’m not sure that there could be a more confusing example of the mess that has been created with Jewish identity in the modern American Jewish world.

Before making any recommendations as to how to resolve this issue or how I will respond to the question above, it is important to understand that the Reform Movement’s 1983 resolution allowing patrilineal descent didn’t create this mess, but it did complicate it further. In the almost 30 years since that decision, there has been much crossover between the Conservative and Reform movements in America. Thus, when the Reform movement issued its resolution (which was in the works for more than 35 years), it might have thought the implications would be wholly positive and would really only impact Reform Jews (the resolution specifies “in Reform communities”). However, that resolution has had negative impacts on both the Conservative and Modern Orthodox movements. The question of “Who’s a Jew” has less implications for the Orthodox Jews in America as it is unusual for them to marry outside of their sect. It is when a Modern Orthodox or Conservative young person wants to marry an individual who has been considered Jewish through the Reform movement’s notion of patrilineal descent that we are posed with the problem. Jewish young people in these more liberal denominations interact throughout adolescence and the college years in youth groups, summer camps, Israel trips and college Hillels. Additionally, following college Jewish communal organizations like Federation and B’nai Brith do not distinguish between patrilineal Jews and matrilineal Jews at young adult singles’ events.

We are now facing head on the inter-denominational challenges that have arisen from the Reform movement’s resolution as the children of that era are now of marriage age and having their own children. In response to the question above from the Jewish Values Online website, I would respond as follows:

There is no question that you have been raised in a family that has embraced Judaism, Jewish culture and Jewish values. You have grown up identifying as a Jewish person and because of your father’s Jewish heritage, you have a claim to the birthright of the Jewish people. The Reform denomination of Judaism, in which you have affiliated, acknowledges you as a full-fledged member of the Jewish people for all purposes. Should you marry a man who is Jewish through matrilineal descent, it would be advisable that you undergo a formal conversion so there would be no Halachic issues concerning your children’s Jewish identity.

Matters surrounding Israel’s legal system as it pertains to Jewish identity should not be an issue for you unless you plan to immigrate to Israel and become a citizen. Should that be the case, I would advise you to inquire about those issues at that time and not worry about them now. Like all civil laws, they have the ability to change over time based on Israel’s government at the time and the authority and opinion of the Chief Rabbinate.

As you acknowledged, this might not be the answer you want to hear, but at this time it is the reality. A conversion for someone in your situation (raised Jewishly, who identifies as Jewish) is intended to make your Judaism more legitimate from a Halachic perspective. It should not be understood as undermining your religious identity throughout your life. It is a conversion in a different category than an individual becoming Jewish from another religion altogether. Consider it a technicality.

My ultimate goal is to remove such problems in the future so these painful questions don’t arise in the future. It is first important to acknowledge that this is a matter full of nuance and the American Jewish community is made up of very different communities who will never agree on most issues. That being said, this issue must be resolved for Jews from the more liberal movements of modern Judaism (Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Modern Orthodox) whose followers are marrying each other and raising families together.

Over the years, there have been several recommendations to fix this matter. Some have suggested mass conversions for all Jewish children before bar or bat mitzvah. Others have recommended that all brides and grooms go to the mikveh as a form of conversion before the wedding to assure Halachic Jewish status.

My proposal is to set a time limit on the status quo. Until the year 2020, matrilineal descent is the only accepted form of passing Jewish status genetically. Jewish individuals who are raised Jewish in a home with a Jewish father and identify as Jewish are to be considered Jewish from a cultural perspective, but must undergo a formal conversion for recognition as Jewish from a Halachic understanding.

After the year 2020, it will be understood that because of modern genetic testing (DNA tests) it is now possible to ascertain patrilineality with complete certainty. Therefore, a Jewish individual with at least one Jewish parent will be considered Jewish from a Halachic perspective for all matters. While the Orthodox will not agree to this, it will not have the same negative implications as the fissure between the Reform and Conservative movements that has existed for the past three decades.

The leaders of the American Jewish community should begin collaborating on such a partnership agreement. Only if we are on the same page on the matter of Jewish status will we be able to seek harmony among the disparate denominations of liberal Judaism. We cannot allow the ultra-Orthodox to dictate the definition of a Jewish individual, but we also cannot allow ourselves to be fractured by our own differing definitions of Jewish status. There has been far too much controversy and pain for this situation to continue unresolved.

Cross-Posted to the Huffington Post

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

Jewish Athletes with Italian Roots

This is one of my favorite scenes from the classic 1980 movie “Airplane” (and a I have a lot of favorite scenes):

Elaine Dickinson: Would you like something to read?
Hanging Lady: Do you have anything light?
Elaine Dickinson: How about this leaflet, “Famous Jewish Sports Legends?”

Okay, so maybe there aren’t many Jewish sports legends, but this week has been a great one for professional Jewish athletes with Italian roots.

Italy will be playing in the Euro 12 soccer championship game this week and they got there being led by Mario Balotelli, who grew up as the foster son of a Jewish mother.

Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that “Balotelli dedicated the two goals he scored in Italy’s 2-1 semifinals victory over Germany on June 28 to his foster mother, Silvia, who raised him in northern Italy. Newspapers and websites ran a dramatic photo of Balotelli tearfully embracing his mother after the match.”

Moked, the website of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, called the Balotelli’s emotional embrace with his mother “an emotion for all Italians and a special emotion for Italian Jews.”

Balotelli revealed the fact that his adoptive mother was Jewish in early June, when like other teams, the Italian national squad visited Auschwitz ahead of the start of the games.

Also, this week came the revelation that Jewish Italian tennis player Camila Giorgi will be moving to Israel after Wimbledon. Giorgi has reached the second week of Wimbledon competition. She was born to Italian parents of Argentinian descent and currently lives in France. The European Jewish Press reports that the Israeli Tennis Association (ITA) will offer Giorgi a $100,000 grant in return for a 30% cut of her prize money over the next few years.

I certainly hope Italy keeps churning out impressive Jewish athletes in the years to come. In the mean time I’ll be cheering for Balotelli in soccer competition and following Giorgi’s international tennis success. Buona fortuna!

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

Bar Mitzvah Boy on America’s Got Talent

Cross-posted to the PopJewish.com blog

Watching Edon Pinchot on “America’s Got Talent” tonight I found myself praying. Not praying that the adorable 14-year-old Jewish boy wearing a kippah would win. I was praying that Howie Mandel and Howard Stern wouldn’t make any stupid jokes.

Kudos to Howard Stern for holding back and focusing on young Edon’s singing ability rather than his obvious religion and religious garb.

I guess the other Jewish judge named Howard couldn’t resist. Howie Mandel praised Edon and then asked him if he got a standing ovation at his bar mitzvah too. Not a horrible remark. But then Howie Mandel went the silly pun route and actually said to the young boy, “I said it before and I’ll say it again: From one to another, Jew are terrific!”

Howard Stern came off looking much better by first suggesting he doesn’t use a fog machine and then explaining how impressed he was with Edon’s performance. After an earlier performance Howard Stern criticized Edon for having a whiny voice, but this time around he said the young boy is humble and nice and that “America’s going to fall in love with you.”

Here’s Edon performing on “American’s Got Talent” tonight:

And here’s Edon Pinchot (no relation to Bronson Pinchot — Balki Bartoukomos of “Perfect Strangers”) performing on “American’s Got Talent: Vegas Week”:

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