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

Action More Than Words

In this week’s Torah portion called Vaera, the Lord speaks to Moses, saying, “Go and tell Pharaoh King of Egypt to let the Israelites depart from his land.” However, Moses protests. He raises doubts that the people will listen to him. He uses a kal vachomer – the hermeneutical device often used by the rabbis in midrashic literature. Applying the outcome from a minor case to a major case, the formula is “If X, then all the more so Y.” Moses says to God, “The Israelites [my own people] would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of impeded speech?” If his own people will not listen to him because of an inability to speak well, then how can God expect Pharaoh to listen to Moses’ demands?

This is not the first time that Moses appeals to God using his speech impediment as an excuse. In last week’s parsha, Moses claims Lo ish d’varim anokhi – “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant.” Ki khvad peh u’khvad lashon anokhi – “I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”

God negotiates with Moses finally offering his brother Aaron as Moses’ mouthpiece to convey the message to the people. Yet Moses remains the central guiding figure standing at the helm of the Israelite nation. One not familiar with the rest of the Biblical Narrative might presume that Moses’ incompetence in public speaking would immediately disqualify him for the role of leader of the Israelites. Thus, regardless of how we understand Moses’ speech impediment or its negative effect on his self-confidence, we should consider the fact that the Jewish people’s leader par excellence was not an effective speaker. And it did not matter.

Moses says, “I am not a man of words.” So, how is he such a successful leader? He is a man of action. Moses says, “I am slow of speech.” What does he mean by this? He is a man of justice. He might have physical disabilities or limitations precluding him from eloquently conveying a message, but it does not deter him from demonstrating strong and charismatic leadership abilities in other ways. What Moses lacks in oratorical skill, he makes up for in his action, and in his pursuit of justice.

This past week our nation commemorated the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the anniversary of his birthday. Dr. King was one of humanity’s greatest orators. He could steer an audience’s emotions with his booming voice, with his carefully crafted words, with his memorable sound bites. And yet, it was his acts of social justice that ultimately made him the great leader that he was. Many of us have seen the famous photographs of Dr. King walking arm-in-arm with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel at the march in Selma Alabama. Heschel famously commented that on that day, he was “praying with his feet.”

Letter from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Rabbi Seymour Siegel thanking
him for his honorary degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary on July 3, 1968

Equally moving was the time King and Heschel, two modern masters of words, walked together in silence to Arlington’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in protest of the war in Vietnam. They laid a wreath in pledge to lo yilmedu od milchama – that humankind would “no longer know war.” They certainly could have movingly expressed their feelings with words, but it was more powerful to resort to action. They let their actions do the speaking.

We should be curious as to why God does not perform a miracle and correct Moses’ speech impediment. After all, this is a God who only moments later causes miraculous plagues to triumph the Egyptians and opens the sea for our ancestors to cross. The answer must be that actions speak louder than words. Moses leads by example. He leads by doing.

This should become a powerful message of American Judaism. We have the moral imperative to strengthen our social action initiatives. We must apply Jewish ethics to contemporary issues pursuing social justice. From the words in our Tradition, tzedek tzedek tirdof (only justice shall you pursue), we must make it our ethical responsibility to make social action one of our highest priorities. Rabbi Shammai teaches in Pirkei Avot, “Say Little Do Much.” Not everyone is a great speaker. But that should not be a hindrance. Be a “doer.” You can change the world.

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

Farmar in Israel, LeBron and Kobe at the JCC, and Hebrew with Amare Stoudem

NBA basketball players got a much longer summer vacation than they expected because of the lockout. It feels odd to have gone through the entire month of November without any professional basketball games to watch.

So what have these NBA stars been doing with their newly found free time? NBA player Jordan Farmar has been playing in Israel for Maccabi Tel Aviv. Farmar, whose mother is Jewish and step-father is a Jewish Israeli, has spent the NBA lockout playing in front of sellout crowds at Yad Eliyahu Arena. He is the first Jewish player in the NBA since Danny Schayes, son of NBA Hall-of-Famer Dolph Schayes, retired in 1999.

A number of other NBA stars have been hooping it up at local Jewish Community Centers. TMZ.com reported that LeBron James was a last minute fill-in for a team at the Mandel Jewish Community Center in Cleveland, Ohio. The second he stepped on the court LeBron “instantly became the best player to ever compete in the Herbert S. Diamond league.” Apparently, the former Cleveland Cavaliers player got a call from some of his friends who had a 7:30 PM game at the JCC and King James was happy to oblige. He led his squad to a ten point victory.

The NBA Lockout led superstars like Kobe Bryant and Lebron James
to play at their local Jewish Community Center (JCC)

After the game, LeBron James tweeted “Just got done hooping in the JCC league. So funny but good run @RichPaul4 had a few 3’s #basketballneverstops.” Here’s a video clip of LeBron playing at the Mandel Jewish Community Center in Cleveland:


While LeBron was playing in the gym of the Cleveland JCC, his nemesis Kobe Bryant was having a private training session at a Jewish Community Center in Irvine, California. Once again it was TMZ.com that broke the story (that means some 12-year-old kid at the JCC called it in). JTA reports, “the Los Angeles Lakers’ star guard, according to the TMZ website, brought a trainer to the Southern California JCC to work on shooting drills and cardio training as spectators watched.

Here’s the video of Kobe Bryant at the JCC in Irvine:

video platformvideo managementvideo solutionsvideo player

And if Kobe and LeBron are becoming regulars at the JCC that means that the New York Knicks’ Amar’e Stoudemire has to do something even more Jewish than that after discovering there was Jewish heritage on his mother’s side last year. Don’t worry, the 6-foot-10 superstar who visited Israel for the first time last year now says he’s interested in opening a Hebrew school, according to the New York Daily News. “An unnamed source told the newspaper that Stoudemire has discussed opening a school that would focus on teaching the Hebrew language and Jewish history, though no school is actually in the works.”

But who will teach at the Hebrew School Amar’e Stoudemire opens? He will of course. Here’s Stoudemire’s first Hebrew lesson:

Well, that was Tov Meod!

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

Anthony Castelow Also Taught Mitch Albom About Faith

Last night’s premiere of Mitch Albom’s “Have a Little Faith” was an emotional tribute to both Rabbi Albert Lewis and Pastor Henry Covington.

It was great to see that so much of the film had been shot at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, Michigan’s largest congregation. Rabbi Harold Loss even made a small appearance in the background with Cantorial Soloist Neil Michaels.

Anthony “Cass” Castelow with his daughter and Mitch Albom

One of the most moving parts of the film was Mitch Albom sitting in the car and listening to Anthony Castelow’s story. Every time Mitch came by the I Am My Brother’s Keeper church, “Cass” would ask him when he was going to hear his story. Finally, Mitch took the time to listen to his life story which is about repentance. “Cass” was a junkie who stole ham sandwiches from the homeless shelter and was then invited to live in Pastor Henry Covington’s home. Today he is a deacon of the church.

With Anthony Castelow, Deacon of the I Am My Brothers Keeper Church in Detroit

I had a chance to meet Anthony Castelow at an event to raise money for Albom’s Hole in the Roof Foundation after his book Have a Little Faith was published. During the event I sat behind Castelow and then listened intently as he addressed the audience with his young daughter by his side. Mitch had already inscribed a hardcover copy for me, but I brought an advanced paperback copy that I received to the event and asked Cass to sign it. He seemed honored to have the chance to inscribe a book. The honor was all mine.

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

Mitch Albom’s Having a Very Jewish Year

Last month when I encouraged my friends to attend the Michigan Jewish Sports Hall of Fame’s annual induction dinner I made certain to tell them that local Detroit sportswriter Mitch Albom was being inducted. I figured that would be a draw. I was surprised by the response that many of them had — “Mitch Albom’s Jewish?” they asked.

Mitch Albom’s Michigan Jewish Sports Hall of Fame plaque that will hang
in the Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit.

Apparently they hadn’t read his most recent book “Have a Little Faith,” in which Mitch Albom’s childhood rabbi asks him to deliver the eulogy at his funeral. The book has been turned into a made-for-TV movie and will be broadcast tonight at 9:00 PM on ABC. Some of the movie was filmed at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield with many members of the local Jewish community in the seats as extras. The movie stars Laurence Fishburne (as the late Pastor Henry Covington), Martin Landau (as Rabbi Albert Lewis) and Bradley Whitford (as Mitch Albom).

Growing up in Detroit and reading Mitch Albom’s sports columns since he arrived here in 1985, I have always known he was Jewish. It wasn’t a secret, but it also wasn’t something Albom discussed. I first met Albom in 1996 when he was honored by the Anti-Defamation League when I was serving a college internship there. I already owned all of his books which included several volumes of “The Live Albom” (collections of his sports columns) and his books about University of Michigan football coach Bo Shembechler and U-M basketball’s Fab Five dream team.

Meeting Mitch Albom for the first time in 1996.

Albom was already well known on the national scene as a sportswriter through his frequent appearances on ESPN, but it wasn’t until his autobiographical book “Tuesdays with Morrie” came out in 1997 that he gained international attention and local fame. There were only a few references to Albom’s Jewishness in the book and even when he spoke about the book at Jewish book fairs around the country Albom didn’t say much about his own faith. When I first met Rabbi David Wolpe in 1996 he told me that he had been a Jewish day school classmate of Mitch Albom’s at Akiba Hebrew Academy in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania (and that he was currently reading the galleys of a book Albom was writing about his college professor who had died).

His “Have a Little Faith” book was Albom’s first time publicly writing about his childhood in a Jewish day school and his relationship with his beloved rabbi, the late Rabbi Albert Lewis. While he doesn’t belong to any local congregation, Albom developed a nice relationship with Rabbi Harold Loss of Temple Israel, a very large Reform congregation in suburban Detroit.

With Mitch Albom and Dave Barry at an event in 2009 to raise funds
for Albom’s Hole in the Roof Foundation.

Perhaps due to the publication of “Have a Little Faith,” Mitch Albom is now more amenable to be honored by Jewish organizations. The ADL event where I first met him was much less a Jewish cause at the time and seen more as a humanitarian organization whose main project was the “A World of Difference” institute in which anti-bias education and diversity training were at the core of its mission. This past May, Albom received an honorary degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary, the same institution where his beloved Rabbi Albert Lewis had been ordained some fifty years prior.

Earlier this month Albom was inducted into the Michigan Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. His speech (video below) began with an apology that he had not been more involved in the Michigan Jewish Sports Foundation during his long career in Detroit. He then used the rest of his time to speak about his college professor, Morrie Schwartz, and the lessons he learned while caring for him as he lay dying in bed.

Albom has become very generous in his philanthropic causes relating to homelessness in the City of Detroit (a main theme of “Have a Little Faith”) and a mission/orphanage in Haiti. Albom’s Hole in the Roof Foundation helped raise and distribute funds to fix the roof of a church/homeless shelter in Detroit (I Am My Brother’s Keeper) and also rebuilt the Caring and Sharing Mission and Orphanage in Port-au-Prince, Haiti (where he has taken his childhood friend Rabbi David Wolpe).

The work he has done with his Hole in the Roof Foundation is certainly in line with Judaism’s value of Tikkun Olam (helping to repair the world). Perhaps Mitch Albom will also become more involved in local and national Jewish causes as he lives out the lessons he’s learned in life. He has certainly done a good job sharing the wisdom of his own teachers like Morrie Schwartz and Rabbi Albert Lewis.

Here is the trailer for tonight’s premier of “Have a Little Faith”:

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

I’m From Detroit Too: A Response to Toby Barlow

This is my first article for the new Huffington Post Detroit:

I was excited last week when the Huffington Post launched its new Detroit section. I clicked the link to take me to the new page dedicated to my hometown and the first article I read seemed to tell me that I wasn’t really from Detroit after all. Toby Barlow’s “Detroit, Meet Detroit” rant would have you believe that “many, if not most, of the people who identify themselves as being from ‘Detroit’ have really no idea what Detroit is like.” What?!

I’m very happy that Barlow has fallen in love with Downtown Detroit and everything that it has to offer him — from grocery stores no one in the suburbs think exist to the dry cleaners where he drops off his shirts. Whether Barlow realizes it or not, through his words he has brought the late Mayor Coleman A. Young back to life. Or at least the former mayor’s sentiment. In his twenty years in office, Mayor Young successfully drew a sharp divide between the residents of the City of Detroit and the suburbanites. The race riots of the late 1960s forced middle class whites to flee the city, but it was Mayor Young who kept them away. The polarizing mayor made the Eight Mile border a dividing landmark between the races. I’m afraid Barlow isn’t helping matters today.

When I’m out of town and someone asks me where I’m from, I tell them I’m from Detroit. If I told them I’m from West Bloomfield (the suburban city of my childhood) or Farmington Hills (where I currently reside) they wouldn’t know if that was in Michigan or Minnesota. If they look at me confused, then I explain I’m from the suburbs outside of the city. I don’t think that is any different than someone who lives in Skokie, Illinois telling people they live in Chicago, or someone who lives in Newton, Mass telling people they are from Boston.

I know Detroit well and I know what Detroit is like — bruises and all. It is a great city full of much potential and I enjoy spending time downtown. In any given year I find myself heading downtown for Tigers baseball and Red Wings hockey and Lions football, concerts at the Fox Theater and Comerica Park, and shows at the Fisher Theater and the Detroit Opera House. In the past year I’ve spent more time in the city as more businesses have moved in. There is certainly a revival in the Motor City and we should all be excited about the possibilities. But I want to caution Toby Barlow and anyone else who believes that to really be part of the Detroit renaissance one has to pick up and relocate to Downtown Detroit.

The people who are paving the way for this renaissance do not live in the city. Yes, these business people are working hard to get young talent to move to Detroit and live affordably in Midtown or Downtown with attractive stipends. But at the end of the day these executives are driving back north to their homes in the suburbs. Even the current mayor of Detroit, Dave Bing, maintains his home in the wealthy suburb of Franklin for when he’s not staying at the Manoogian Mansion on the Detroit River. And it’s important for Barlow to know that these tycoons who are buying up real estate in the center of the city and relocating their companies didn’t make their money in Detroit. The two mega companies now situated in Campus Martius were based in the suburbs (Compuware began in Southfield before moving its headquarters to Farmington Hills, and Quicken Loans had its headquarters in Livonia).

Even if the majority of employees who work in Detroit head back home north of Eight Mile at the end of the day, Barlow should be grateful to them. They’re paying income taxes to the City of Detroit where he lives but doesn’t work (a simple Internet search shows that Barlow works for an organization that is based in Dearborn, not within the city limits). For many energetic young people like Barlow Detroit seems like a euphoric metropolis now, but will they continue to reside Downtown when their kids are ready for school? The fact is that Detroit still has a high crime rate. How will that impact these enthusiastic Detroiters’ decisions to stay put as their kids get older?

In his article, Barlow cynically writes that it’s great that suburbanites might know the Faygo song but they probably don’t know about “the College of Creative Studies’ massively incredible new Taubman Center.” Hold on one second. How does Barlow think the CCS got that massively incredible new Taubman Center? Let me explain. From the generosity of Al Taubman. And I wonder if Barlow knows where Mr. Taubman got the money to support such a center that he finds to be massively incredible? He made that money owning malls. Big malls. In suburbs. In fact, since Novi is the first suburban city (of many) Barlow condescendingly mentions in his article, it’s ironic that without Twelve Oaks, the massively incredible mall that Taubman built in Novi, there probably wouldn’t be a Taubman Center at the CCS in Detroit. Barlow writes, “Nothing good ever came out of suburbia.” Perhaps he wants to rethink that one.

Both of my parents grew up in Detroit. They both graduated from Mumford High. Their families left the city, but not because the big homes with big yards in the suburbs were so appealing. They left the city because the city was changing for the worse. They left reluctantly, but who wouldn’t? There was increased crime and race riots that were bad enough the National Guard was called in. I sat with my parents last year as we watched the stage production of “Palmer Park,” which accurately portrayed the tense race relations in that Detroit neighborhood in 1967. My parents had tears in their eyes (and so did every other native Detroiter of their generation who sat in the theater) because this production brought back the emotionally jarring, difficult times of that period.

My grandparents’ generation didn’t turn their backs on the City of Detroit. They continued to work in the city and support its culture. They were saddened that they had to move out because they didn’t have a choice. In fact they always spoke nostalgically and lovingly about the City of Detroit. And my parents’ generation didn’t turn their backs on the city either. When you live in the suburbs you’re just not going to head downtown every Saturday night for dinner. It’s just not realistic. That doesn’t mean that suburbanites are forsaking the city. It also doesn’t mean that we’re ignorant of the city’s offerings. I never doubted that people who live Downtown like Barlow are able to get their dry cleaning done close to home and go food shopping. I’m thrilled that there are new restaurants and jazz clubs opening up. I’m thrilled that Eastern Market is booming. I love that Detroit has hosted a Superbowl and a World Series and a Final Four. That makes me proud because I’m a Detroiter.

It is wonderful that more young people are considering Midtown and Downtown as viable places to live. I really think that’s great. Unfortunately, the young people choosing to move into fancy lofts in Midtown instead of Royal Oak, Ferndale or Downtown Birmingham will not save the city. The City of Detroit is 144 square miles of land that is too big to manage. The solution to this problem will not be young suburbanites reclaiming the city blocks once inhabited by their parents and grandparents. It also won’t help the crime rate or the corruption that stains the city’s political arena. The old mentality that the City of Detroit doesn’t need or want white suburbanites coming into to “our City” is unfortunately still alive and well (just ask business leaders how difficult it is for them to get city contracts).

Rather than criticizing the suburbanites who choose to stay in their suburban homes, Barlow would make more sense if he thanked the suburbanites who work in the City of Detroit and come to the city for sports events, casinos, dining, and entertainment. It’s the money coming from the suburbs that’s going to spurn the renaissance for the City of Detroit. No matter how much grocery shopping and dry cleaning Barlow does in the city, suburbanites like Dan Gilbert and Peter Karmanos are the ones turning the city around. And even if they head north on the Lodge Freeway to go home after work each day, they are Detroiters. And so am I.

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

Al Sharpton’s Apology As a Lesson in Repentance for the Jewish High Holidays

Last week about 20 rabbis from the Los Angeles area participated in a High Holiday sermon writing workshop called “Punching Up Your Holiday Sermons.” These pre-Rosh Hashanah sermon workshops for rabbis are nothing new, but this workshop had a twist. It paired the rabbis with Hollywood screenwriters who helped them come up with more engaging sermons.

It’s possible, however, that Rev. Al Sharpton has been more helpful to rabbis writing their High Holiday sermons this year than these talented screenwriters. His recent mea culpa may be the subject of many sermons heard in synagogues this High Holiday season.

Rev. Al has been in the news a lot lately. Just the other day it was announced that he will be hosting his own show on MSNBC to be called “PoliticsNation,” which will debut on August 29. Sharpton will become the network’s only African-American host.

This is good news for Sharpton, who made headlines recently when he wrote an apologetic Op-Ed piece in the NY Daily News in which he admitted to making mistakes during the racially fueled Crown Heights riots 20 years ago. Sharpton has long been blamed for inflaming tensions between Blacks and Jews in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn in 1991. It all began when a car in the late Lubavitcher Rebbe’s motorcade struck and killed an African American boy. Many argue that Sharpton incited the angry crowd leading to the fatal stabbing during the riots of Jewish student Yankel Rosenbaum.

In his apology Sharpton wrote, “Twenty years after the Crown Heights riots, the city has grown, and I believe I have grown. I’d like to share a few of my reflections about the choices I made, including the mistakes, with an eye toward advancing racial understanding and harmony.”

Sharpton concluded his Op-Ed with a reflection from an experience he had at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He wrote:

I would have shared a story about what happened when, as a young man, I was brought to the Jewish Theological Seminary by one of the civil rights leaders who had been an aide to Dr. King.

That day, I was introduced to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Rabbi Heschel had marched with Dr. King in Selma in support of the Voting Rights Act. For doing so, Heschel was attacked by some in his community who were very conservative and thought a theologian should stay in his proper place. He gave me a book and autographed it and, as we talked, I asked him about Dr. King — the man and the hero.

That’s when Dr. Heschel said to me: “Young man, only big men can achieve big things. Small men cannot fulfill big missions. Dr. King was a big man.”

Crown Heights showed how some of us, in our smallness, can divide. We must seek to be big. Next weekend, we will unveil the monument to Martin Luther King in Washington. I will speak at the ceremony along with members of the King family and the President of the United States.

I will continue to think about the value of the lives of Gavin Cato and Yankel Rosenbaum as I look up at the big statue of Dr. King. I will look towards the heavens and I will wink at Rabbi Heschel.

Not everyone seems to be ready to move on even if it has been twenty years since the Crown Heights riots. Last week, Sharpton was forced to back out from a scheduled panel discussion on the riots at the Hampton Synagogue after the synagogue’s rabbi, Marc Schneier, came under fire for the event by Yankel Rosenbaum’s family among others.

I think we should take Sharpton at his word. A cynic might say that he believed he needed to apologize for his role in the riots in order to get his show on MSNBC. However, after reading his apology I feel it is sincere. Many apologies by celebrities these days take place before the guilty individual has really had an opportunity to think about their mistakes, not to mention most of those apologies have been written by publicists. Sharpton had twenty long years to consider what he did and appeared contrite in his published apology.

What Sharpton did is what we call “teshuvah” (repentance) in Judaism and it is precisely what is called for before and during the High Holidays. Sharpton’s apology will be a fitting example for rabbis to share with their congregations on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Rev. Al Sharpton restated what he did in the situation and then explained why it was misguided and why he won’t do it again. I’m sure twenty years ago Sharpton never thought he’d ever be able to apologize for his actions during the Crown Heights riots, but he just might become an example to the Jewish community for doing teshuvah. The two unnecessary deaths in 1991 must be remembered and mourned, but the time has come for the Black and Jewish communities to move on from the Crown Heights riots.

Black-Jewish relations have certainly improved in the two decades since Crown Heights. A recent video on the Funny or Die website demonstrates just how much commonality exists between Blacks and Jews. In fact, two of the artists mentioned in the song (the Jewish performer Drake and the Jewish biracial artist Lenny Kravitz) have collaborated on a new track called “Sunflower” for Kravitz’s upcoming album “Black and White in America.” Maybe Sharpton will have Drake and Lenny Kravitz perform on his new MSNBC show.

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

Matisyahu, Moishe House and Kickball: Detroit’s Coming Back

The last time I was at Belle Isle, the almost 1,000-acre island park in the Detroit River (the largest in the United States), was in the mid-1980s. I don’t remember if I was there to go to the aquarium (which closed in 2005) or the zoo, but I know I haven’t been there since. Today, Belle Island is most known for the Detroit Grand Prix, the Indy Car League auto race around the island, but that hasn’t taken place since 2008 due to the automotive industry’s economic crisis.

Crime has kept many in the Metro Detroit Jewish community from venturing down to Belle Isle in recent decades, but a young cadre of Detroit Jews is set to change that. Come Play Detroit’s Justin Jacobs planned a dodgeball game on Belle Isle that would seek to break the world record for most people playing in one game of dodgeball. Yesterday’s game had 1,800 players (a good number in Judaism) and was ESPN SportCenter’s #10 play of the day. While it wasn’t enough to set the world record (2,136 in Rochester, NY), it was an impressive showing.

Jacobs tells me that sports leagues for young Jewish Detroiters will continue on Belle Isle with softball and kickball leagues. And speaking of kickball, there is a kickball tournament in Los Angeles today (Kick for Detroit) that is sponsored by Community Next and seeks to reconnect young adults with the city of Detroit and raise money for improvement projects in Detroit.

As I’ve written before, we are seeing a real renaissance here in Detroit and it’s being led by young members of the Jewish community. This is making headlines around the country. Rabbi Yonah Bookstein wrote about the rebirth of Jewish life in Downtown Detroit today in the Jewish Journal Los Angeles today, citing such initiatives as Motor City Moishe House, Repair the World, and the saving of the landmark Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue.

Here’s native Detroiter Rabbi Bookstein’s article:

Matisyahu stood out in front of the crowd. He had just stage-dived head first off of a 15 foot-high stack of speakers from the side of the stage. The crowd held him aloft and returned him to the stage as if rehearsed.

“Detroit,” he yelled into the microphone, “you are f***ing crazy!”

The crowd roared back.

Lights made the already stifling heat even more unbearable. How they could continue to play?

Yet, an hour into the show, the pace and intensity of the music was growing. The crowd jumping up and down to the beat of the music. Rivers of sweat ran off the drummer who was shirtless by the end.

With over 1,000 people packed into the air-condition-less hall, many took turns outside on the front steps of St. Andrews. It was that hot inside.

When the band finished, and walked offstage, the crowd would not leave. They started to chant for more.

Matisyahu, already drenched head to toe, returned with his signature anthem of peace, “One Day.” He brought dozens of concert-goers on stage to accompany him. St. Andrews Hall pulsed with sweat, cheers. Across the room of outstretched arms the crowed chanted the words at the top of their lungs unmoved by the searing heat.

Earlier in the day, a few miles from the venue, I brought Matisyahu to visit the newly established Motor City Moishe House. The community and residents transformed a historic home which once housed a venerable rabbi of yesteryear into a communal home, part of the national Moishe House network.

In this blighted neighborhood, Detroit’s Jewish community is banking on this collective to be a hub of programming for young adults. Theough opened only months ago, at least fifty people showed up with just two days notice to meet the singer and enjoy a vegan feast prepared by a young kosher caterer.

When I was growing up in Detroit in the 1970’s and 80’s, the notion that Jews would return to the city — literally the areas of old Detroit that housed the core of the community for a hundred years — was a remote fantasy. The community had been moving to the suburbs since the 1950’s. By the time I was born, the Jewish community, all the synagogues and temples had moved to the suburbs. My parents choice to live in the city was never quite understood. Two small shuls stuck it out.

It’s no secret that Detroit is on the ropes. The city is a shadow if its former self, even with gorgeous new stadiums for baseball and football. Miles of the city have been razed and nature is reclaiming them. Miles of empty commercial real estate line the streets of the sprawling suburbs. Corruption and mismanagement were rampant and reached their zenith when the mayor was arrested two years ago.

However, Detroit’s Jewish community, who live almost entirely in the suburbs, is not ready to give up on a city that has such a rich and vibrant Jewish past. In addition to the new Moishe House, and a Repair the World volunteer, a landmark synagogue recently was saved. The Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue was about to close its doors and sell their building after 90 years.

The situation had been so bad that they needed to recruit the bartender of a nearby night club to make a minyan. A group of my contemporaries, old shul members, and younger Jews have banded together and saved the shul. The compelling saga was even covered by NPR who ran a story about it.

Detroit’s Jews are resilient and instead of closing the Downtown Synagoge, they celebrated their 90th with 300 people.

As the Motor City’s modern bard Eminem, offers, “Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity…Would you capture it or just let it slip?”

I’m looking forward to taking my family to Belle Isle. It’s been too long!

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that there was also a bike tour of Old Jewish Detroit yesterday in which 150 bikers got to see the old neighborhoods and landmarks of Jewish Detroit up close. Here’s a link to the Detroit Free Press coverage.

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

The Magic Returns to Motown

Dan Gilbert, Brian Hermelin and Josh Linkner are three Jewish entrepreneurs in Metro Detroit who have teamed up to invest some venture capital into companies in an effort to rebuild the City of Detroit. Gilbert is the founder and chairman of Quicken Loans, which is now headquartered in Downtown Detroit where he has been buying up business real estate properties in the city lately.

Each of these three men has a great deal of experience in the business world. In addition to owning Quicken Loans, Gilbert (in photo) also is the majority owner of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers. Hermelin was CEO of Active Aero Group, an on-demand airplane charter company, and also founded Rockbridge Growth Equity with Gilbert. Hermelin’s late father David, an insurance tycoon, was one of the owners of the Palace of Auburn Hills where the Detroit Pistons play, and also the Ambassador to Norway before his death in 2000. Linkner considers himself a serial entrepreneur having started a couple of companies before launching ePrize in 1999. Gilbert and Hermelin, along with other Detroit businessmen, invested $32 million into ePrize through Rockbridge in 2006.

Now Gilbert, Hermelin and Linkner have created Detroit Venture Partners in an effort to infuse capital into businesses that are willing to help kickstart Gilbert’s dream of a renaissance in the City of Detroit.

What these three venture capitalists (who are all over 40, white and Jewish) seem to be missing is an African American businessman who is already beloved in Detroit and has a reputation for creating a financial renaissance in a predominantly African American neighborhood (think Harlem, NY).

Enter Earvin “Magic” Johnson. The former NBA great tweeted to his Twitter followers last night that he’ll be in Detroit to make a big announcement tomorrow. When I read Magic Johnson’s tweet I started thinking about what this announcement would be. The Detroit Pistons have already been acquired by Tom Gores so I didn’t think it was basketball related. And then this morning I awoke to an email from Josh Linkner (CEO of Detroit Venture Partners) announcing a “Magic” announcement. Linkner wrote, “Super exciting news for the City of Detroit, the tech community, and certainly myself personally. If you can, please watch it unfold live with streaming video at www.DetroitVenturePartners.com today, July 21, at 10:00am ET. It should be a powerful media conference announcing breaking news that I know you will enjoy.”

The AP seems to have picked up on the story too. An article published this morning says:

Quicken Loans founder and chairman Dan Gilbert has called a news conference to announce an addition to a venture capital company focused on rebuilding Detroit, and a tweet from ex-NBA star Magic Johnson suggests it’s him. Gilbert’s spokespeople say a sports legend and Hall-of-Famer will be introduced Thursday as the newest member of Detroit Venture Partners. They and Johnson’s staff wouldn’t confirm Wednesday that it’s the former basketball player.

But Johnson posted Twitter messages Wednesday night saying he’ll “be making a big announcement in Detroit” on Thursday and looks forward to helping put “people back to work” in his home state of Michigan.

The early-stage venture capital business focuses on entrepreneurship and technology to create jobs in Detroit.

This is great news for Detroit. I dream that my children will have a vibrant downtown area in Detroit like my parents had before the riots in the late 1960s. Hopefully Magic Johnson will bring his magic to Detroit — the same magic that won championships for the Los Angeles Lakers and helped turn Harlem around. Here’s hoping it works.

UPDATE: Josh Linkner introduced Magic Johnson at this morning’s press conference. Johnson said he is making good on a promise he made to Mayor Dave Bing during his campaign for mayor of the City of Detroit by investing some of his millions into economic growth in the city. johnson choked back tears as he introduced Mayor Bing, a fellow Hall of Fame point guard.

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

The Self-Proclaimed Jewish Conspiracy Against Kwame Kilpatrick

Ask anyone who grew up in suburban Detroit in the past forty years and they will explain the odd relationship that has long existed between the suburbanites and the City of Detroit. As I was coming of age in the Detroit suburbs, I was well aware of Mayor Coleman Young’s sentiment toward the mostly white suburbanites. According to his Wikipedia entry, Mayor Young “was criticized for his confrontational style toward suburban interests and the apparent diversion of city resources to downtown Detroit from other neighborhoods. Young was generally popular with the inhabitants of the inner city, while generally disliked by those of the suburbs because of his outspoken criticism of racism, white flight to the suburbs, economic problems, and other similar issues.”

Following the race riots of the late 1960s in Detroit, most Jews fled the city for the northwestern suburbs. My grandparents and parents were part of this migration. They moved from beautiful neighborhoods in Detroit to large homes in Bloomfield Hills and Southfield, Michigan. The City of Detroit became part of the history of Detroit’s Jewish community. My parents talk of “Old Jewish Detroit” the way their grandparents talked of the “Old Country.” Many Jewish Detroiters will venture Downtown to work, but make sure to head back North on the highway to be home by dinnertime. I’ve always gone Downtown for professional hockey, baseball or football games, as well as for concerts and theater productions, but we don’t often make a day of it like you can in other large American cities.

Some of this has changed in recent years. There has certainly been a bit of a renaissance taking place in Detroit. New stadiums for the Detroit Tigers (Comerica Park) and the Detroit Lions (Ford Field) have helped. Entrepreneurs like Dan Gilbert (Quicken Loans) and Peter Karmanos (Compuware) moving their companies Downtown has helped too. In the Jewish community, there has been a concerted effort to reinvigorate city life in Detroit. A recent New York Times article focused on the young entrepreneurial move to the City of Detroit. The opening of a Moishe House will further help to bring young Jews to the city and create an urban renaissance.

There seems to be a lot of optimism about a turnaround for the City of Detroit. Perhaps all this good news is what makes the reports of disgraced former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s upcoming book so disappointing. Mayor Coleman Young was a corrupt politician who likely benefited from kickbacks. But somehow, he survived as mayor for twenty years. Kwame Kilpatrick was worse. His hubris, deceit and unlawfulness caused his downfall.

Kwame Kilpatrick is serving a five-year jail sentence right now. But that hasn’t kept him from writing a book in which he blames his downfall on a Jewish conspiracy. The fact that there are no Jewish people around who could be blamed for his illegal activity notwithstanding, Kwame alleges that there was a Jewish plot to bring him down.

The Michigan Citizen, which calls itself America’s most progressive newspaper, was the first media outlet to receive a copy of Kwame Kilpatrick’s forthcoming book, Surrendered, which will be released in July. In the review of Kwame’s book they write:

The book is saturated with a redemptive overtone that tends to relay the renewed spiritual connection Kilpatrick has developed. It’s through this lens that he speaks to what happened to him, not declaring innocence in his actions but the unfairness in how the events surrounding those actions were handled.

Rather than seeking repentance for his misdeeds, Kwame cries that it was unfair the way he was treated and looks for a scapegoat. So, why not the Jews?

There’s always been somewhat of an underlying question in the midst of the Kilpatrick scandal: Who the hell did he piss off to bring this level of scrutiny?

This question could be answered in Kilpatrick’s account of visits by Detroit attorney Reggie Turner on behalf of the area’s powerful Jewish community. Kilpatrick’s General Counsel Sharon McPhail angered many organizations when she set out to improve the placement rates for groups receiving Workforce Development funds. She required recipients to reapply for their funding and submit detailed strategies to improve placement rates.

The Jewish Vocational Services, who received $25 million from the city in workforce funds, had only a two percent placement rate. They were cut.

According to Kilpatrick, the February 2007 Savior’s Day, an important event for African Americans, at Ford Field with Nation of Islam national leader Louis Farrakhan was also an offense to the Jewish community.

It’s amazing that throughout history the Jewish people have been an easy scapegoat. Here in Detroit, Henry Ford blamed the Jews for the nation’s ills. Father Charles Coughlin publicly scapegoated the Jews for all the political and economic problems in the world.

It’s shameful that the unremorseful former mayor is still looking for someone to blame. It’s equally troubling that the Michigan Citizen seems to fall for Kwame’s overt anti-Semitism. I wonder if they were compelled to give a positive review of Kwame’s autobiography in exchange for being the first media agency to get its hands on a copy of the book.

The list of charges in Kwame’s indictment is a long one. But perhaps the most egregious crime is that Kwame continues to grow the unfortunate divide among Detroit’s Jewish community in the suburbs and the City of Detroit at a time when a renaissance is within reach. And that’s just sad.

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