German Tech Company Hires Asperger’s Syndrome Workers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avi Kapen

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

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

Mike Levine

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

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

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

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

Cross-posted to the Detroit Jewish News

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

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

Passover and Pet Food

As a kosher supervisor (mashgiach) and the owner of a kosher certification agency, I am constantly impressed by the level of attention, respect and genuine care that non-Jewish business owners demonstrate for their kosher observant customers. I once again witnessed this first hand when I met the owner of Premier Pet Supply last week.

Mike Palmer, who is half Chaldean and half Italian, owns the pet food and supply store with his uncle, the store’s founder. Located in Beverly Hills, a suburb of Detroit, the store has received a lot of positive attention of late because of Mike’s knack for publicity and his people skills (he obviously has great pet skills too!). The store is consistently named best pet supply store in the area and Mike was just named one of the Elite 40 Under 40 for Oakland County, Michigan.
Mike called me a few weeks ago and asked if I would come by his store before Passover to answer some questions about kosher for Passover pet food. Since my family doesn’t own any pets and I haven’t certified kosher dog food in over a year (the dog treat company Kosher Michigan certified went out of business in 2010), I decided to brush up on the laws concerning pet food on Passover. And it’s a good thing I did because when I got to the store I was overwhelmed by the amount of knowledge Mike possessed concerning the kosher laws and Passover. He knew more about the intricacies of the holiday than many Jewish people I know.
As we walked the aisles of his store I checked the pet food that he had labeled as being appropriate for Passover and there were no errors. He explained that he had read an article by the Star-K kosher certification agency and felt he had a good understanding of what makes pet food kosher for Passover, but he wanted to run some questions by me. We had a long conversation about kitniyot (legumes, which most Ashkenazi Jews don’t eat on Passover) as well as the custom of feeding the family dog in the garage on Passover, which many families follow. Over and again, I heard Mike express how important he believes it is to provide quality service to his Jewish customers and ensure that they can purchase the best food for their pets on Passover while adhering to the holiday’s regulations.
In terms of what Jewish law says about pet food on Passover, the most important thing to remember is that chametz (leavened products) from the five grains (barley, oats, rye, spelt, or wheat) is forbidden to eat or derive benefit from. Feeding chametz to one’s pet would be deriving benefit from it. Additionally, a Jewish person is not allowed to even possess any chametz on Passover. 
As I explained to Mike, while kitniyot (legumes) are not eaten by most Ashkenazi Jews, they may be fed to pets on Passover. Also, one does not need to change over the dishes for pets, meaning that the usual food bowls for pets can be used on Passover but they should be cleaned out first.
A 2009 article in the NY Times featured a Passover Seder for dogs that took place at a Chicago pet food store to promote Evanger’s Dog and Cat Food Company which sells Kosher for Passover products. (Joshua Lott/Chicago Tribune)

There is a custom of “selling” one’s pet to a non-Jew on Passover. The reason for this has to do with deriving benefit from chametz. Thus, if one leaves a pet with a non-Jew during Passover the pet owner will still derive benefit from chametz when the non-Jewish friend feeds the pet. Therefore, some observant Jews will “sell” the pet to the non-Jewish friend on the condition it is sold back at the conclusion of the holiday in the same fashion as the “legal fiction” sale of chametz.

While many Jews are not familiar with the laws governing pet food on Passover, it is reassuring that there are pet supply store owners like Mike Palmer who are concerned about this. It is admirable that he has taken the time to research this subject and has gone out of his way to help his Jewish customers find the right pet food for Passover.

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

Detroit Brothers Produce Over 500 Mobile Apps

Originally published in The Detroit Jewish News

There’s An App For That!
Local brothers’ jacAPPS business rolls out more than 500 mobile apps.

In what could have easily been mistaken for a scene from HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, two brothers sit at a conference room table in Southfield bouncing ideas off each other for mobile applications that could improve Jewish life.

A small collection of iPhones and iPads sits on the table, as one brother remarks that it would be cool if they created an app that would replay the rabbi’s sermon just in case you dozed off in the middle. The other brother suggests they create an app that allows congregants to choose High Holiday seats by selecting the seats before the holiday and making a donation right from their cell phone. They share a brotherly laugh as they reflect on one brother’s seat-saving tradition in which he drapes tallits (prayer shawls) over the rows of seats for the entire family.

With one look these brothers seem to intuit that they’ve found a need for another app. This look is one that has no doubt been flashed from one brother to the other more than 500 times over the past few years. When there’s a need for something to be available on a mobile phone, Fred and Paul Jacobs will be there to come up with the way to do it.

The brothers launched jacAPPS (pronounced Jake-Apps; a riff on their last name) three years ago when they noticed a need for mobile applications in the radio industry. “Back in the fall of 2008 with the economy facing unprecedented challenges, few would have expected a company like ours to emerge as the leading app developer for radio,” company president Fred Jacobs, 60, of Bloomfield Hills explained.

The brothers’ entrée into the mobile apps market wasn’t by accident. Fred, the oldest of three brothers (Bill isn’t involved in the apps company), formed Jacobs Media in 1983 and went on to create the Classic Rock format while sitting at his kitchen table. Today, the company is the nation’s largest radio consulting firm specializing in rock formats. Each year, Jacobs Media uses Techsurveys to track the leading-edge technology trends in their industry, and in 2008 those surveys pointed the way to the smart phone revolution and the explosion of mobile apps. jacAPPS hasn’t stopped creating apps since and today it is one of the top developers in Michigan.

Having consulted rock and indie radio stations since the 1980s, the Jacobs brothers always try to figure out what radio listeners are doing and how they’re using technology. Their job is to help radio stations better understand the listeners. They knew that radio had lost much of its portability as people were choosing to listen to an iPod or MP3 player in place of a Sony Walkman or portable boom box. In recent years, when they realized that people were beginning to stream their favorite radio stations on mobile devices, they recognized that radio would once again be portable and they leapt into action. Rather than allow their clients to have their music streamed along with other radio stations’ music, they decided it was better to have single station apps. Apple’s AppStore had only been open for 90 days when they got to work on their first mobile app.

“Individual station brands deserved their own mobile apps,” wrote Fred Jacobs on the jacAPPS blog. “Surprisingly, some of radio’s biggest broadcasters took a different direction, building their own ‘umbrella apps’ that featured hundreds of their stations. You cannot underestimate the success of iHeartRadio or CBS’s Radio.com — apps that aggregate hundreds of radio stations under a big tent. Many smart phone owners swear by these apps, allowing them the ability to hear ‘favorite’ stations, while providing a diversity of choice. But our contention was that consumers are less focused on corporate brands than they are on hometown stations in their markets — or in cities where they once lived or visited. And for individual stations, the app experience has been powerful.”

After its incorporation, jacAPPS designed and released 20 apps in six months and began hiring young talent to grow the business. They continuously asked themselves what a mobile application can do that the radio station’s website cannot do.

They already had the listening ears of radio station executives across the country who were ready to implement whatever Fred and Paul Jacobs were recommending. When they told these radio stations that there existed a strategic need for customized mobile apps, the radio stations got in line and put in their orders.
The first app jacAPPS created was for WRIF, a Detroit based Rock radio station. “They did a great job and allowed us to be one of the first radio companies to provide iPhone apps to our listeners and they helped us transform our business from strictly broadcast to a multiplatform media company,” said Tom Bender, senior vice president and general manager of Greater Media Interactive, owner of local stations WRIF, WCSX and WMGC.

“We are now in the development of version 3.0 of our station apps for both iPhone and Android phones,” Bender added. “We have brainstormed for additional new functions that would be of high user interest, and jacAPPS was invaluable in that process. It’s easy to get enthused by a shiny new piece of technology, but to have the research and user input to know how often and exactly how it’s going to be used make the difference. That, more than flashy graphics or slick colors, is the real creative input for me.”

The watershed moment for jacAPPS was when Christian Radio signed on. “We were recognized early on by iconic brands like K-Love and Air1, which opened up the Christian Broadcasting world to us,” explained company vice president and general manager Paul Jacobs, 57, of Farmington Hills. “Car Talk, C-SPAN radio, and other great non-commercial radio franchises have added to our portfolio.”

jacAPPS has been grateful for the many Christian radio stations that have ordered customized mobile apps, but they are especially proud of some of the Jewish-themed apps their company has created such as Jewish Rock Radio, launched by Jewish recording artist Rick Recht. “We launched Jewish Rock Radio with the goal of creating the first truly high-caliber, 24/7 international Jewish rock radio station – a critical communication channel for the Jewish world based on the business models, the aesthetics, and ‘best pratices’ of the very best online radio stations offered in the Christian and secular worlds,” Recht, the executive director of Jewish Rock Radio explained. “When we dug deeper to find the developer behind some of the stations we wished to emulate, we found JacApps. With JacApps, we had found a developer who could not only create apps that were on caliber with some of our favorite Christian stations, but literally had created some of those apps!”

The Jacobs brothers believe strongly that radio stations were originally questioning if their music should be available on a stream, but they have taken it to the next level as their clients realize that they must have an app. They see themselves as improving the radio experience in the 21st century by helping radio stations create something that will generate revenue, enchant their audience and help them better distribute their content in the digital age.

While radio was their springboard into the mobile application industry, jacAPPS now designs and builds apps for a wide array of business categories and industries including festivals, events and sports brands. The Southfield-based company, which was spun off from Jacobs Media this summer, has created apps for the Spartan Sports Network, Ann Arbor Art Fairs, the Detroit International Jazz Festival and the Taste of Atlanta. The company is looking forward to creating apps for political candidates as the upcoming election approaches.

One difficulty for jacAPPS has been the lack of compatibility across platforms. They have had to create separate custom apps for their clients on Apple devices, as well as on the Android and Blackberry platforms.
Since its launch in 2008, jacAPPS has created more than 500 apps for hundreds of clients. And with more than 11 million downloads, they can likely claim the most amount of downloads for any app company in Michigan (Crains Detroit wrote, “The company is by far the leading app developer in metro Detroit.”). What has set them apart is their ability to build a company’s entire mobile strategy from the concept of the app to its design through development and marketing. In today’s portable world, Fred and Paul Jacobs have figured out how to elevate their clients’ brands and to successfully integrate that into the dynamic mobile space.

The jacAPPS team is made up of a handful of young, talented employees who are several decades the Jacobs brothers’ junior. They all seem to understand that mobile applications are the next step in the technology revolution. Bryan Steckler, operations manager, said, “We are now where we were with websites in the 90s. Big brands have mobile apps, and now every business is realizing they need an app.”

The two brothers enjoy working together in the same business. Pointing to his younger brother, Fred said, “If you can’t trust this guy, who could you trust?”

They are both quick to acknowledge that they would not be as close if they weren’t in business together. “It’s a family business and that leads to group collaboration,” Steckler said. “The fact that they’re brothers is what makes the company what it is. And that transfers to our clients as well.”

“We’ve been fortunate to build a team of smart, young talented people here in Southeast Michigan. Our apps are truly ‘exported from Detroit,’ and showcase the resurgence of the technology industry in an area more commonly recognized for its heavy industry,” Fred Jacobs remarked.

The future for jacAPPS is bright as the mobile app market continues to surge. “We see nothing but growth and expansion ahead. By blending strategy, research, and keeping a laser focus on the consumer experience, our expectation is that jacAPPS will become a leader in full-service mobile resource for brands of all types that recognize the mobile future,” said Fred.

The company has had its share of proud moments as it became one of the top mobile app developers. jacAPPS has had the top app in the App Store in New Zealand; its NPR Radio app was featured on the front page of the U.S. App Store; and its app for Pulse 88.7 in New York was featured on a billboard for Apple.

jacAPPS has developed a number of mobile apps for nonprofit companies at either no cost or discounted rates. The team has also taken pride in having the opportunity to work with interesting people. Among its clients is a Native American Council made up of several tribes. jacAPPS has created an educational application to teach the Native American language to children. As the development team demonstrates the app on an iPad, it is clear that they understand the role they have played in the continuity of these people’s heritage.

Paul Jacobs holds his iPhone and with a smile says, “We’re never more than six feet away from this device. This is the one device that’s always with you and the one that you’ll return home for in the morning if you forgot it. It is the hub of a person’s identity.”

The phrase “there’s an app for that” has become a popular punch line and much of the reason for that can be attributed to Fred and Paul Jacobs and their creativity.

(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

Sheldon Yellen – CEO and Mensch

Yesterday morning, we heard the words from the Torah portion Ki Tavo, which included the blessing that God shall make us the head and not the tail. This blessing is often repeated on Rosh Hashanah Eve and some even have the head of a fish on their holiday dinner table as a reminder of this blessing. According to the Torah, it is good to be the head.

That’s not always the case in the business world however. CEOs may have been blessed to be the “head” and not the “tail,” but it oftentimes seems like more of a curse. Over the past decade we’ve seen many disgraced CEOs who are not good examples of doing what’s right. We certainly wouldn’t consider the corporate heads of Enron, Tyco, Adelphia or WorldCom to be role models for our children.

There are exceptions. There are CEOs who demonstrate strong leadership skills along with ethical behavior. Several years ago I gave a sermon about Aaron Feuerstein, the CEO of Maden Mills, who after his entire plant burned down spent millions of his own money to keep all of his 3,000 employees on the payroll with full benefits for 6 months. Feuerstein consistently did the right thing even when it was difficult and he was faced with significant challenges. He claimed his strong ethical behavior and sense of justice as a corporate head were due to his faith and Talmud education.

Photo courtesy of Belfor

There is another CEO, who like Feuerstein, is striving to be a mensch and give back to his community. Sheldon Yellen, the CEO of Belfor is not your typical CEO. Tonight he’ll be at the Emmy Awards, where his episode of “Undercover Boss” is nominated for an Emmy. Sheldon went undercover in the CBS reality show “Undercover Boss” and received an education about how hard his employees work and how difficult it is for them to make ends meet. Yellen was so moved by all the lower-level employees he met that he eventually broke down and revealed himself as the CEO of the international disaster restoration company that is based in Michigan. The episode is up for an Emmy Award in the category of Outstanding Reality Program.

Yellen’s episode of “Undercover Boss” is a long shot to win an Emmy tonight against the other nominees including “Hoarders,” “Antiques Roadshow,” “Deadliest Catch,” Kathy Griffin’s show, and an episode of “MythBusters” guest starring President Obama. But while Yellen may not win an Emmy tonight, he is quite deserving of a mensch award.

In the episode of “Undercover Boss,” Sheldon demonstrated strong moral character and was able to show his emotions on national TV. Sheldon learned a great deal about his employees, their passion for the job, and how hard they work to support their families. He came off as an inspirational leader and the episode proved to be an important lesson for the upcoming Jewish holidays. I’m not the only rabbi who noticed that Sheldon’s experience of going undercover is a lesson for all of us as we approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Sheldon recently received a phone call from a Connecticut rabbi asking him to be the guest speaker at the community’s Selichot services this year. In his typical humble fashion, Sheldon couldn’t understand why the rabbi would want him to speak. However, he agreed and will be the featured speaker at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Bridgeport this Saturday night. He’ll speak about his journey from a challenging childhood in Detroit to becoming a wealthy businessman and philanthropist. He’ll also talk about system of values he draws on as a CEO.

Yellen and his three brothers were raised on Welfare by their mother in Detroit during the 1950s. Their father was a great person, but became sick and eventually developed an addiction to methadone after having nine stomach operations in the course of only two years. Growing up in an affluent Jewish community in which he and his brothers had to work from a very young age and with a father who was in prison (for dealing drugs) was difficult for Yellen. He told me that his mother didn’t have enough money to belong to a synagogue or send Sheldon to Hebrew School, but right before he turned thirteen she decided that it was important for him to have a bar mitzvah. An Orthodox synagogue agreed to let him have a bar mitzvah, but he didn’t have the Hebrew background. He was called to the Torah for his aliyah with the blessings transliterated in English on a piece of paper. The Orthodox men were expecting him to actually read from the Torah. It is a memory that has lasted with Yellen to this day.

In the past year Sheldon Yellen has made lasting contributions to his community. He bought a financially distressed private Jewish country club in order to keep its Jewish roots alive. He also funded a Toledo, Ohio-based yeshiva that had run out of living space for its young students. He was able to donate enough money so that the yeshiva could move into a new facility in suburban Detroit with enough room for both study and living quarters for its students. Yellen has also committed himself to Torah study at the local Detroit Kollel. The Jewish education he missed out on as a child is now one of his top priorities.

In addition to his philanthropy, Yellen has proved himself to be a very generous individual on a personal level. Recently, Michael Kenwood, a 39-year-old New Jersey volunteer EMT, was killed during Hurricane Irene while trying to save others’ lives. That hero’s sister-in-law is Amy Margolis of Birmingham, Michigan. When Amy and her family were unable to get a flight to New Jersey for her relative’s funeral because of the hurricane, they had no choice but to get in the car and drive. She was already on the road making the Michigan-New Jersey trek when she received a call from Sheldon Yellen who offered to meet them on the road and escort them to the airport where they would board one of his two private jets.

Margolis was quoted in the Detroit Jewish News saying that Yellen’s act of kindness makes him a mensch and an angel. “I didn’t do anything anybody else wouldn’t have done,” Sheldon Yellen said.

In an era when CEOs don’t always do the right thing and often act immorally, it is refreshing to see Sheldon Yellen demonstrate that a CEO can also be a mensch and a role model. While he might not win an Emmy Award tonight, he certainly has made a positive difference in his own company and in his community. He’s made a fortune restoring properties, but Sheldon Yellen might just have enough integrity and generosity to restore the reputation of our nation’s disgraced CEOs.

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

Do It For Detroit

I was born 35 years ago today in Sinai Hospital on West Outer Drive in Downtown Detroit.

Detroit was born 310 years ago today.

Detroit hasn’t aged well in my lifetime. Sinai Hospital, which opened in 1953 to give Jewish doctors a place to practice, was the the central medical institution for the Jewish community. Even as the Jewish community migrated northwest into the Metro Detroit suburbs, Sinai remained the hospital of choice for Detroit’s Jews. Gradually this changed as it became increasingly more dangerous to venture Downtown and a handful of outstanding hospitals sprouted up in the suburbs with the Jewish doctors who received their training at Sinai. In 1999, Sinai merged with Grace Hospital and ceased being the Jewish hospital.

Jewish Detroiters had one less reason to head Downtown. The Jewish Federation building moved to the suburbs in the early 1990s. The synagogues had long since been sold to Black churches. The fancy restaurants that the Jewish community still flocked to had shuttered. With the exception of a Tigers baseball game or a Red Wings hockey game or the occasional concert or theater performance, there were little reasons for Jewish Detroiters living in the suburbs to head Downtown.

But that has changed. Detroit is now seeing a renaissance. The first attempt at a renaissance in Detroit was in 1977 when the Renaissance Building was erected as the great hope for the Motor City to turn around following the race riots of the late 1960s. That plan never materialized. However, the time has finally come for Detroit’s revival.

Here are a few of the great things happening in Detroit that are contributing to its revitalization:

Moishe House – On June 1, Detroit opened its first Moishe House in Downtown. The mission of Moishe House is to provide meaningful Jewish experiences for young adults around the world by supporting leaders in their 20s as they create vibrant home-based Jewish communities. Detroit’s new home for a handful of entrepreneurial Jewish young adults was funded by local Jewish philanthropists including A. Alfred Taubman, Max Fisher’s daughter Jane Sherman, the Seligman family, Bill and Madge Berman, and the Norman and Esther Allan Foundation. The young people living in the house, including Community Next’s Jordan Wolfe and Come Play Detroit’s Justin Jacobs, are pioneers. Like the young, idealistic pioneers who immigrated to Israel to resettle the land, these visionaries are taking the lead in Detroit.

Come Play Detroit – Founded by Justin Jacobs, Come Play Detroit began as a way for Metro Detroiters to play sports together in leagues. What began as a basketball league in the suburbs has morphed into a way to help bring excitement to the Downtown area. Softball and kickball leagues in Detroit, parties, and an attempt at setting a Guinness Book World Record for the largest dodgeball game are just some of Justin’s ideas that have encouraged Metro Detroit’s young adult Jewish population to venture Downtown.

Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue – Detroit’s only surviving synagogue is a Conservative congregation on Griswold Street in the center of the city that until recently functioned as the only minyan where Jewish businessmen could go for afternoon services if they had to say Kaddish (the mourner’s prayer). Its story of rebirth is an interesting one. Young, passionate Jews have saved the building from falling into disrepair and becoming a slum building. Its new mission is to rediscover Jewish life in Detroit. The synagogue no longer functions as a traditional Conservative synagogue, but more of a Jewish center of social justice programming and cultural activities offering Shabbat services and luncheons, film nights, classes, and dance parties.

LiveWorkDetroit – Detroit’s business leaders are the city’s biggest cheerleaders for a renaissance. The Michigan Economic Development Corporation includes many Jewish businessmen who are at the forefront of creating new jobs for young people in an effort to get them to stay in Detroit. A Crain’s Detroit Business article included several Jewish leaders in its list of the most powerful people in Detroit: Dan Gilbert of Quicken Loans, Michigan Republican Party Chairman Bobby Schostak, and Jewish Federation President Michael Horowitz. Jewish businessmen like Gilbert, Schostak, Stanley Frankel and Gary Torgow are working behind-the-scenes to retain Jewish talent and help bring back the young Jews who fled Detroit. With the full support of Detroit’s Mayor Dave Bing, Dan Gilbert has teamed up with Josh Linkner, Magic Johnson and Brian Hermelin to invest in new companies that will help revitalize Detroit.

My birthday wish today is that the City of Detroit, which shares its birthday with me, will become the city that we dream it can be. I hope the Motor City returns to a vibrant urban center that we can be proud of. It is exciting that so many young Jewish Detroiters are finally saying “Do It For Detroit.”

(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

New Name for Conservative Judaism?

It’s not unusual for a company to change names following a high-profile scandal. Philip Morris famously changed to Altria, Blackwater became Xe, ValuJet became AirTran, and Andersen Consulting became Accenture following its involvement in the Enron scandal. Cingular became AT&T, and the WWF became the WWE. I wouldn’t be surprised if BP changed its name after the recent disastrous oil spill in the Gulf.

Other companies have changed names to better explain what they do or to improve their image. I’ve long held the belief that the Conservative Movement of Judaism needs a name change and a brand re-imaging. It now looks like the titular head of Conservative Judaism, Jewish Theological Seminary Chancellor Arnie Eisen, agrees. While there’s no scandal in the Conservative Movement, the number of adherents has dropped significantly and the name doesn’t resonate with people.

The term “conservative” has been appropriated by the political conservatives, not to mention it doesn’t fit well with the middle-of-the-road Jewish denomination anymore.

The Forward reports that Eisen “acknowledged that the movement’s name is now being debated” at a recent meeting with its editors and reporters. Eisen told the journalists that he was open to a name change when asked about that possibility. “Leaders of Conservative-affiliated organizations want to find a name that will better capture what they want the movement to represent,” he said.

In typical fashion, the movement’s leaders are not all on the same page. The Forward article goes on to quote Rabbi Steven Wernick, the new executive vice president and CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, “who said that this is not the time for his movement to be discussing a name change.”

Eisen said that “The leading candidate right now, I think, is just to go with the name ‘Masorti’ (traditional), which captures things better than the word ‘Conservative’ captures them. So I am open to suggestions; I am open to a name change.” Masorti is the name used by the Conservative Movement in Israel and outside of North America.

The Forward solicited suggestions from a wide range of people as to what new name they think the Conservative movement ought to adopt, if any. Comedian Judy Gold suggested it be renamed the “I Eat Treyf Outside the House” movement. The Orthodox spokesperson Rabbi Avi Shafran (director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America) urged that the Conservative movement “not change its name, which is an important reminder that its foundational raison d’être was to conserve Jewish observance in the face of Reform.” Rabbi Shaul Magid, a former JTS professor of Jewish philosophy who is now a professor of Jewish studies at Indiana University, proposes that the movement now be called “Historical Renewal,” to reflect both its roots and its desire for spiritually focused growth.

Personally, I like my colleague Rabbi David Wolpe’s suggestion that the movement change its name to “Covenantal Judaism.” But if I had to come up with my own suggestion it would be “Evolving Judaism.” The name doesn’t have to sum up everything for which the movement stands. That is the purpose of a mission statement and guiding principles. For me, I have embraced Conservative Judaism because it acknowledges that Judaism is fluid and always evolving. Yes, the Tradition is conserved as it evolves, but to speak to people’s modern sensibilities the emphasis should be on change. For an accurate Yiddish name, I’d recommend nisht ahin, nisht aher (neither here nor there) to underscore that Conservative Judaism is neither Orthodox nor Reform.

I appreciate what branding guru Rob Frankel said when asked by the Forward for his opinion of a name change for the Conservative Movement: He said that there was no point in changing the Conservative movement’s name if the movement does not first decide what its essential message is.”

I suppose that the hard work is figuring out the message for a middle-of-the-road brand of Judaism in the 21st century. If it’s just about a cool, new name, I’d recommend “Google” — even if it’s already taken, it would guarantee a lot of visits to the website.

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

Email, May it Rest in Peace

Cross-posted at Jewish Techs
Email is like a cat. I don’t know if it has nine lives, but people still use this form of communication even though it’s been pronounced dead many times in recent years.
The general consensus among experts in online communication is that social media is killing the medium of email. Just as companies and organizations are getting pretty good at making their email newsletters look professional, it seems that more people are rendering email as the means of communication from a bygone era (sorry ConstantContact.com!).
As a rabbi who has worked a lot with Jewish teen communities, I learned a few years ago that teens had given up on email. To reach their virtual inbox, the communication has to come in the form of a text message, online chat, or Facebook message. For the young generation that’s never had to handwrite a letter, email just seems too formal.
Once I noticed that teens were neither reading nor replying to standard email messages I decided to give out my cellphone number. All of a sudden I found that the communication with the teens was flowing via text messages.
I’m not saying that teens will look at an email account the same way they look at a Fax machine or a VHS tape, but they’re preferred method of communication doesn’t involve the @ sign.
So, how does one reach the target audience if email is dead (or at least on life support)?
Englin Consulting added its voice to the “Email is Dead” discussion by blogging:
“…the advent of devices like iPhones and Droids that make it easy to quickly delete emails without even looking at them, plus the spreading reach of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, plus the email overload many people experience in their inboxes equals the demise of mass email lists as a productive tool. Facebook’s COO recently revived the debate, saying that because young people don’t use email the demise of email is imminent.”
However, the consulting firm still maintains that email is an important and effective commuications tool, albeit one that could use some strategic rethinking.
On its blog they offer three things to consider about your organization’s email list, including 1. Size matters; 2. Content matters; and, 3. Email matters.
Email isn’t dead, although it’s dying. A recent study, quoted by Englin Consulting, reveals that 58% of people check email first thing in the morning before doing anything else online. And mass email lists remain a critical and even growing component of many organization’s fundraising, advocacy, and education program — one that still delivers results. However, that same study showed that more than 10% of people log onto Facebook first thing, 20% start with a search engine or portal site, and 5% head first to online news.
Businesses and organizations need to be more creative with their email marketing. Maybe social media hasn’t killed email, but it’s certainly giving it a beating… Don’t believe me? Just go here and click the “SMACK” button.
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller