David Beckham’s Ani L’dodi Tattoo

Celebrities sporting tattoos is nothing new. However, there’s a recent trend that I’ve noticed of non-Jewish celebrities having Hebrew words and phrases tattooed on their bodies. Soccer superstar (and famous Spice Girl spouse) David Beckham’s Hebrew tattoos are being displayed all over the Web today, but only because of the Hebrew tattoo’s proximity to his tattoo getting all the attention.

Beckham is an ambassador for “Sainsbury’s Active Kids” in Britain, where he’s was born and raised. In that role, he recently appeared in a promotional poster for a program run by the Sainsbury supermarket chain that provides local schools with sporting equipment. It wasn’t any of his Hebrew tattoos that caused the scandal, but rather the provocative image of his wife Victoria on his forearm. Apparently the local schools aren’t so eager to display the posters of Becks showing off a naked image of his wife.

Next to the tattoo in question is a line of Hebrew text from Song of Songs which reads “Ani l’dodi li va’ani lo haro’eh bashoshanim” – My beloved is mine and I am his, the shepherd [grazing his flock] among the lilies. The tattooed verse from the Torah does not mean Beckham considers himself Jewish. He has a large tattooed cross on the back of his neck. The other Hebrew tattoo above the verse from Song of Songs is from the Book of Proverbs 3:1 and means “My son, do not forget my teaching but keep my commands in your heart.” Beckham’s wife Victoria (née Posh Spice) has the same quote from Song of Songs tattooed vertically from her neck to her back. This verse is often recited by bride’s under the chuppah (wedding canopy) at a Jewish wedding to proclaim their love to their groom.

Other non-Jewish celebs who have Hebrew tattoos include Christina Aguilera who has the same verse from Song of Songs as the Beckhams on her lower back and Madonna with the Hebrew letters lamed, alef, vav on her shoulder to represent a Kabbalistic name for God. Britney Spears has the letters mem, hey, shin tattooed on her which is another Kabbalistic name for God.

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

A Detroit Jewish Nonprofit Competes in Facebook Contest to Win $250,000

Thousands in Metro Detroit’s Jewish community have been flocking to Home Depot’s Facebook page in recent weeks. No, they are not all interested in becoming fans of the national retail giant. They are simply trying to help a local social service agency win $250,000 from the Home Depot Foundation.

Jewish Family Service in Michigan was one of 12 nonprofits around the country to win a monthly prize of $25,000 cash and another $5,000 in Home Depot gift cards from the Home Depot Foundation this past January. That win put them in the competition for the Aprons in Action contest that will give away a total of a half-million dollars in March. JFS plans to use the cash prize for its Project Build! program, which provides JFS clients with safe and barrier-free homes through pro bono repairs and renovations provided by local builders, remodelers and suppliers.

While many nonprofits in the Jewish community are still trying to find their way in the new world of social media, online contests like the Home Depot Foundation’s Aprons in Action have pushed nonprofit organizations to create a social media strategy to get out the vote on Facebook, the social networking site that boasts more than 850 million users.

Retail giants like Target and Home Depot, as well as large corporations like Toyota and Ford Motor Company, have drawn millions of Facebook users to their corporate and foundation “Fan Pages” through their online contests.

These crowd-raising initiatives have required nonprofits to familiarize themselves with such 21st-century terms as “social clout,” “social analytics,” “network amplification,” “true reach” and “social media influence.” Additionally, these nonprofits that compete in the contests have to quickly bolster their own online social identity to broadcast their participation in the contest. Many of these nonprofits are trying to raise their online presence on a shoestring budget, if they have allocated any marketing funds to social media at all.

In most cases, competing in such online contests is a gamble for the nonprofits because they don’t know what their return on investment will be, and they are allocating a lot of resources, including staff time, to the cause. JFS has recruited Jewish professionals and lay leaders in the community to reach out to their own networks to encourage daily voting on the Home Depot Foundation Facebook page during March. Local members of the Jewish community were asked to include reminders on their social networking sites and in email signatures. Some also participate in “post-a-thons,” where volunteers gather at a site and recruit voters via laptop postings. Additionally, JFS offered a daily email reminder service to increase its odds of securing the most votes.

“The Home Depot contest, as well as our success last summer at winning Toyota’s 100 Cars for Good competition, has made us aware that everything we do needs to have a social media layer,” explained Perry Ohren, CEO of JFS. “This has profound meaning in terms of our timing and our message. Timing has to be instantaneous and our message has to be short and engaging.”

One organization that has found much success in using its social reach to garner the votes needed to win online contests is Chabad Lubavitch. The international organization headquartered in Brooklyn exploits social networking not only to broadcast its message globally, but to also win financial grants. Chabad schools and service organizations, like the Friendship Circle, have used Facebook and Twitter to rack up hundreds of thousands of votes in national contests for six- figure grants by Chase Community Giving and Target Stores.

In a Facebook contest sponsored by Kohl’s Cares, 12 Jewish day schools in the U.S. finished in the top 20 of the competition, with 11 of those schools being Chabad-affiliated. Friendship Circle of Michigan, an organization dedicated to helping children with special needs, won $100,000 when it finished third in the Chase Community Giving Challenge on Facebook after using several social media tools to get out the vote.

Through these online contests, major corporations are able to donate funds to social service organizations, but it’s not completely altruistic. After all, the corporations are attracting a lot of attention to their brand. In the case of Home Depot, they are able to get thousands of people to visit their Facebook page each day for a month and look at their corporate logo, even if it is subliminal advertising. That is valuable advertising for the company and the half-million dollar investment is a small fraction of the retail giant’s more than $1 billion advertising budget.

Foundations for these large companies, like the Home Depot Foundation, have to make large charitable gifts each year so they figure they should at least help promote their corporate brand in the process.

Regardless of the motivation behind these online contests, it is certain that they have been the driving force in getting nonprofits to focus more on social media strategies. Hopefully, when there’s no large cash prize at the end of the rainbow, nonprofits will continue to utilize social media to promote theircause, raise awareness about their mission and solicit donations.

Originally published in the Detroit Jewish News and posted on the eJewishPhilanthropy.com blog

(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

Thanksgiving is Part of the Jewish Experience

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. It is certainly my favorite secular holiday. I love waking up on Thanksgiving morning knowing that it will be a relaxing day spent with family and friends. I will contemplate all the things for which I am thankful, including being an American.

This week one of my children asked if Thanksgiving was a Jewish holiday or if it’s a holiday that everyone celebrates. I explained that it was a holiday that everyone celebrates, but there are some Jewish people who do not celebrate it. Some observant Jews believe that Thanksgiving shouldn’t be observed because it is a holiday invented by gentiles and has no basis in Jewish law. Heshy Fried (“Frum Satire”) created an xtranormal video on the matter of why frum (religious) Jews don’t celebrate Thanksgiving including some of the unspoken traditions of frum families eating turkey for the Shabbat dinner on the Friday evening following Thanksgiving (but no stuffing!).

Thanksgiving in my opinion should be a day for feeling grateful. Even if we give thanks to God on a daily basis in our prayers, it is essential to take a day out of our busy lives to be thankful for our country. I believe that the consumerism and materialism that is Black Friday have begun to infringe on the Thanksgiving holiday. Stores that encourage shoppers to wait on line for the best deals on the night of Thanksgiving are contributing to our society’s loss of the ideals of Thanksgiving. A day that has long been set aside to be grateful has become corrupted by those willing to camp out on a sidewalk to save $100 on a substandard flat-screen television and the stores that are opening for those sales on Thanksgiving night.

Not all of my colleagues agree with me that Thanksgiving is a worthwhile secular holiday for the Jewish community to celebrate. My colleague Rabbi Jill Jacobs, a leading Jewish activist who is passionate about fair wage, public housing, and homelessness, is not a fan of Thanksgiving. She writes:

Personally, I’m not a big fan of Thanksgiving… My problem is not that I think the holiday is asur [forbidden], or even that I think that the sins of the Pilgrims overshadow any future attempts to find meaning in Thanksgiving. Rather, I find Thanksgiving to represent some of the blandest parts of American life. Thanksgiving has almost as many rituals as some Jewish holidays–there’s the Turkey carving (tofurkey in my house), the ritual foods, the football game, and perhaps the quick round of “What are you thankful for?” And then, the next day, there’s the shopping.
With the possible exception of butternut squash and pecan pie, none of these are rituals that I’m eager to incorporate into my sense of what it means to be an American Jew. I am proud to be an American because of the (sometime) history of democracy, opening our doors to immigrants, and pursuing equality for all. I wish that we honored this tradition by spending Thanksgiving protesting unjust policies and working toward just ones. I even wish that we spent Thanksgiving telling our own immigration stories, grappling with the complications of American history, and thinking about how we want to act in the future. (Yes–I know that AJC puts out an interfaith Thanksgiving Haggadah to this effect, but I haven’t heard that the holiday has drastically changed as a result).

Instead, we get a holiday that’s about stuffing ourselves, watching large & overpaid men jump all over each other (probably while women fans are encouraged to flash their breasts), and preparing to max out our credit cards yet again. (many people also spend time on Thanksgiving volunteering at a local soup kitchen, but–of course–these noble efforts do little to stop the growing incidence of hunger in our wealthy nation.) Other than (tofu) Turkey replacing (veggie) burgers, Thanksgiving is little different from July 4, Memorial Day, Labor Day, or any of the other holidays that have lost any real meaning and have just become one more excuse for gluttony and worship of the gods of commercialism. I’m proud to be an American Jew. But I’ll take mine without the cranberry sauce.

While I feel strongly that part of being thankful for what we have should include being charitable, I don’t think Rabbi Jacobs presents a fair picture of the American Thanksgiving holiday. I much prefer my colleague Rabbi Brad Artson’s take on the Thanksgiving experience. He writes in the Huffington Post:

The Sukkot theory of Thanksgiving is really great. And it could even be true. The only challenge is that I couldn’t find any colonial Puritan authors who made that claim. What is charming about it, nonetheless, is the resonance that so many Jews feel toward Thanksgiving. It is a very “Jewish” holiday, even if it wasn’t a Jewish holiday to begin with: Great meal, great company, celebrating life and joy and resilience and freedom in community. All values embedded deeply in Jewish tradition. 

But I’d like to invite us to a more nuanced and complex vision of what we can celebrate in Thanksgiving and in what we can dedicate ourselves to for Thanksgivings yet to come. 

The term “Jew” comes from the Hebrew word Yehudah meaning thanks, joy, gratitude. At the core of the Jewish way is a resilient joy that directs our attention toward the blessings we already have, those we need to work toward to realize, and the need to share those blessings in community. 

Turns out that Native American traditions have such a tradition as well — feasts of gratitude in which the abundance of the earth and community are shared, noticed and celebrated. So do most of the world’s wisdom traditions. 

When I was a child, the Thanksgiving story was presented as early Americans (the Pilgrims) hosting a meal of gratitude that hosted Indians. The Indians were guests, the Americans were European. And we latter day Americans focused on the nascent democracy found among the Pilgrims. 

As I grew and read, the circle expanded. I learned that the “Indians” were First Americans. They are not outsiders to America’s story, they have always been at its heart. So, Thanksgiving expanded to include two incompatible tellings — the tale as told by Puritans and a very different perspective as recounted by Native Americans. There was a bittersweet quality that joined the older narrative, a tale of displacement, of blindness to the wisdom and depth of the culture of First Americans, of their generosity in reaching out to the newcomers, of opportunities for cooperation and learning missed, of sheer survival against overwhelming odds. 

But the expanding circles keep growing. Shortly after that first Thanksgiving Africans joined this continent as unwilling captives enslaved to serve European farmers and merchants. They too were seen as outsiders, and they too are now an irreplaceable component of the American story. Another layer of grief and tragedy, but also of extraordinary courage, caring, persistence and faith was added to our complicated national identity. 

And the list continues to expand. First seen as interlopers, outsiders, group after group, moved from perifery to core, from alien to American: evangelicals, Jews, Irish, Chinese, Japanese, Mormons, Mexicans, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims — each community (and still others) contributed their stories, perspectives and traditions. These cacophanous tellings were first viewed as threats, eclipsing what it means to be American. Eventually we recognized each new tide as expanding, transforming and elevating what it means to be us. 

That process is by no means finished and is very much in process. Women made a claim to their own dignity and humanity — gaining first the vote, then growing power and a recognition for the distinctive ways that women add to American culture and vitality. Gays, lesbians and transgendered people have started to make themselves heard as participants and contributors, no longer tolerating those who would banish them to the margins. People with special needs are gaining a slowly attentive hearing — asking not for pity and charity but for access, dignity, partnership. 

Most recently, brave voices have started to speak on behalf of the rest of the biosphere and our beleaguered planet. Can one love America and rape the land? Is is possible to celebrate “from sea to shining sea” while depleting those oceans of diversity and life, while dumping so much carbon into the air that we are literally choking the plankton that helps our planet breathe?
As the circles expand to include those who used to be invisible, marginalized, despised, our tellings of Thanksgiving become more nuanced and layered, and they shimmer with flashes of color they previously lacked. We are all enriched to inhabit a world of raucous diversity and resilient inclusion. 

Our dinners may be less simplistic, and our giving thanks is now joined by taking responsibility. But as our telling swells to include many stories, we are made that much greater by the expansiveness of our humanity — warts, joys and all. 

And for it all, let us breathe deeply, take it all in and give thanks. God bless us, everyone!

All holidays are complicated. Jewish holidays are complicated and so are our secular holidays. It’s crazy that we Americans spend Memorial Day at the beach, on the boat, and at barbecues. It’s crazy that some Americans spend their Thanksgiving Day camped out on a sidewalk waiting for deals on big-screen televisions. But that shouldn’t dictate whether Jews should celebrate Thanksgiving. For me, it’s a special day that includes spending meaningful time with family and friends, watching parades and football games, and eating a delicious meal. For all that I remain grateful.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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

Bread Art Project

I’m a big fan of creative ways to raise money for good causes. One winning idea belongs to the Bread Art Project, which allows anyone to create their own artwork on a piece of bread (toasting is a personal preference!).

The Bread Art Project will help the more than 17 million children in America who struggle with hunger. Every approved submission yields a dollar donation from the Grain Foods Foundation to Share Our Strength, a national nonprofit committed to ending childhood hunger in America. This organization connects children with the nutritious food they need to lead healthy, active lives.

Here’s my submission:

By creating your own bread artwork you can help ensure that every child in America has the nutritious food they need to lead healthy, active lives. To learn more about the Grain Foods Foundation, visit gowiththegrain.org.

I plan on contacting the Bread Art Project to recommend altering their project for eight days this spring. I envision it looking something like this:

Hat tip to Amanda Fisher of Brogan and Partners for introducing me to the Bread Art Project

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

Yad LaKashish Turns 50

One of my favorite places to go in Jerusalem is Yad LaKashish (Lifeline for the Old). It is a wonderful organization that truly honors the elderly of Israel while also providing a special experience for tour groups.

Rosh Hashanah this year marks Yad LaKashish’s 50th anniversary. It is truly remarkable how this tzedakah (charity) project has grown. I was first introduced to Yad LaKashish in the summer of 1994 when “The Tzedakah Man” Danny Siegel took a handful of us teens from my USY Israel Pilgrimage group there. We could choose from a list of charitable organizations and I chose Yad LaKashish on a friend’s recommendation. At the time, all I knew about the place was that they sold funny looking tallit (prayer shawl) bags that looked like animal puppets.

Walking through the different craft rooms I was amazed at what these busy elderly artisans were creating. Senior citizens from all walks of Israeli life were putting their talents to work at a time when many of their contemporaries were enjoying their retirement and moving into homes for the aged. I remember seeing the pride on the faces of the Ethiopian and Russian immigrants who brought their artistic ideas from their home country and were able to see their crafts being sold in the Yad LaKashish gift shop.

Yad LaKashish has been able to help needy senior citizens with its unique method of restoring a sense of pride and purpose. These poor and sometimes disabled elderly are able to remain active members of society. Today, the monthly stipend Yad LaKashish provides for these elderly artisans has more than tripled thanks to generous donations from around the world (they don’t receive government funding). In addition to the stipend and holiday bonuses, Yad LaKashish is able to offer meals, transportation and subsidized eye and dental care to the workers. They also take all the elderly artisans on a free day trip outside of Jerusalem.

I try to put Yad LaKashish on the itinerary of every group I take to Israel. I enjoy seeing the smiles on the faces of the visitors as we tour the facility. Those smiles continue as the group goes on a spending spree in the gift shop buying all the beautiful jewelry, crafts and Judaica that these proud and talented men and women created. To donate to Yad LaKashish or shop in their online store visit http://lifeline.org.il.

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

MC Hammer Performs at Jewish National Fund Party

For generations, fundraising efforts for the Jewish National Fund have centered around dropping loose change into little blue metal boxes. In fact, stories abound regarding the millions of dollars sent to the JNF from Hebrew School children to plant forests and make the dessert bloom in Israel during the first decades of statehood.

Apparently, the Jewish National Fund has now moved on from the little blue boxes (pushkes) and is ready to try something new. If the JNF was able to make the dessert bloom then perhaps it won’t be such a monumental task to revive the career of 1990s rapper MC Hammer. Yes, THAT MC Hammer!

On September 22 in Toronto the JNF will host its Future Party and it will be “Hammer Time.” I’m not sure exactly what the conversation sounded like when the Toronto branch of the JNF was planning this Future Party. What other names were thrown out before they arrived at MC Hammer? Did they consider Bobby Brown or Tone Loc? Maybe Kid ‘n Play would be a bigger draw, I’m not sure.

I certainly hope the crowd will come out for what will definitely be a nostalgic evening for many of the young adults who were in middle school and high school when MC Hammer was turning out hits like “U Can’t Touch This” and “Hammer Time”.

The event benefits a very important cause. Proceeds raised from the Future Party will go toward the development of a sports field at the Yafit Park complex in Kibbutz HaHotrim in the northern Carmel coast. The project will fund a multi-functional sports field where the kibbutz residents can enjoy games of football, volleyball and basketball. In 2000, the kibbutz economy collapsed, and as a result the community underwent radical changes in its socioeconomic structure.

Tickets for the Future Party featuring MC Hammer can be purchased online.

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

Mitch Albom Receives Honorary Degree from JTS

Mitch Albom received a Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa, from my alma mater the Jewish Theological Seminary last Thursday. This was not Mitch’s first time at JTS, as he has been a guest speaker there several times in the past.

I grew up in Metro Detroit reading Mitch Albom’s columns in the sports section of the Detroit Free Press. Before going to school each day, from middle school through high school, I would check the daily box scores to see how our local Detroit teams had faired the night before and read Mitch’s insightful take on the various subjects of the Detroit sports scene. In high school and college I would listen to Mitch’s radio show on 760 AM each weekday. At home, my library contains a section with every single book that Mitch Albom has ever written, all personally inscribed.

I’ve enjoyed reading The Live Albom volumes — his compilation books of his Free Press columns as well as his wonderful biographies on such notable sports personalities in Detroit as Bo Schembechler and the Fab Five. His heartwarming and spiritual books, For One More Day, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, and Have a Little Faith have all been resources for me in sermons, eulogies, and introductions to Yizkor (the memorial service on Jewish holidays). And of course, his magnum opus Tuesdays With Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson has been an inspiration for me since I first picked it up the day it was first published in 1997.

Mitch Albom is very deserving of this honorary degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary and I’m especially proud since it was awarded by an institution that is near and dear to my heart. Mitch has truly practiced tikkun olam (helping to heal our fractured world) through his tireless work on behalf of Detroit’s poor. I was uplifted and inspired when I attended his event at the Fox Theater a couple years ago to benefit the I  Am My Brother’s Keeper Ministry, a homeless shelter in Detroit. Mitch has raised an impressive amount of money through his Hole in the Roof Foundation and has traveled to Haiti with his Schechter Day School classmate Rabbi David Wolpe.

Mitch Albom has more talent in his pinky finger than most people could even dream of having. He’s turned his books into movies and stage productions. He’s an accomplished playwright whose current production about Ernie Harwell is on stage in Detroit. In one day, I read his Free Press column, listen to him on the radio, and then see him on TV as an ESPN commentator. And somehow, in that same day Mitch finds the time to raise money to benefit the neediest among us. He might not be the most religious guy, but he has a tremendous amount of faith. He doesn’t have a reputation of being a particularly warm guy on the outside, but there’s no question about how warmhearted this guy is.

Congratulations to Dr. Mitch Albom on his honorary degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

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

Clarifying Natalie Portman’s Hadassah Gift That Never Was

I pride myself on always trying to provide factual information on this blog. However, it has come to my attention that six years ago, in March 2005, I reposted a news report that the Jewish/Israeli actress Natalie Portman made a $50 million gift to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. I didn’t provide any of my own commentary on the post, but simply reposted a news report that had been published on several other websites, based on Israel’s Arutz7. A Google search still retrieves many of the original news reports of Portman’s supposed gift from 2005. Here is what the Arutz7 website report about Portman’s donation looked like back in 2005:

The operative word in the Arutz7 article above is “including,” insinuating that a total of $50 million was received including a “large donation” by Natalie Portman. That was misinterpreted when it was reposted on the NataliePortman.org blog (clip below):

Now, Natalie Portman has won an Oscar and is starring in several big box office films. She is also making headlines for standing up to Dior’s John Galliano and speaking out against his anti-Semitic slurs. Hadassah issued a statement last week praising the actress for her courageous stand. And then, I’m sure some Google searches by Hadassah staff and members turned up the various blog posts from 2005 about the $5 million gift that turns out to be a misunderstanding.

So, six years went by and no one seemed to question this erroneous donation? I did a little research and it turns out that a woman named Phyllis commented on a blog in April 2005, stating “she [Portman] didn’t donate $50 million personally-they received donations of $50 million and her donation was included in that re-read the article: ‘Jerusalem’s Hadassah hospital received a $50 million donation last week including a large donation from one of the people born there — famed Jewish actress Natalie Portman.”

Early this week, I began receiving emails from Hadassah staff members inquiring about this supposed donation. And then I received this message from Hadassah:

“This ‘story’ was originally misreported exactly six years ago this month when Hadassah announced it had raised $50 million in just two short years from quite a variety of sources for a new center for emergency medicine. Natalie Portman appeared at the event but did not contribute to the center. For some unknown reason, last week, people began to re-circulate the very old, very wrong version of the story claiming that Portman had made a $50 million donation. Hadassah would be grateful if you would post a correction to this post. This was obviously no fault of yours. But these things quickly take on a life of their own. Thanks very much.”

So, I am hereby retracting the misinformation that was published on this blog in March 2005. Natalie Portman has been a strong supporter of Hadassah Hospital and I’m sure she will continue to be, however, she never made a $50 million donation to the expanded emergency trauma unit.

I’ll conclude this post by reminding everyone that the new Sarah Wetsman Davidson Tower at Hadassah Hospital, named for the mother of the late Jewish philanthropist Bill Davidson of Detroit, is still in need of funds and I encourage everyone to contribute to this important cause.

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

Leona Helmsley’s Gift to Disabled IDF Vets

When Leona Helmsley, the NYC hotel operator and real estate investor known as “The Queen of Mean,” died she was mostly talked about as a billionaire who donated a large portion of her fortune to her dog.

However, her Charitable Trust (The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust) has recently announced grants totaling more than $10.1 million to help fund three major projects in Israel, including one that has been very close to my heart since a trip to Israel in 2002.

In addition to multi-million dollar grants to the Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center and the Weizmann Institute of Science, Helmsley’s trust also gave $2 million for the benefit of the Zahal Disabled Veterans Organization, which will help build a state-of-the-art center in Beersheva for rehabilitation and support services for disabled veterans and victims of terrorism. This grant also will help construct and equip the center in order to provide a supportive environment for rehabilitation and integration of disabled veterans and victims of terrorism in southern Israel. The center, whose total cost is $23.3 million, is scheduled to open in the fall of 2010.

My wife and I were vacationing at the Dead Sea in December 2002 when we met some new friends and became acquainted with Nechei Tzahal (Zahal Disabled Veterans Organization).

We met Yisrael Abayov, a successful architect from Tel Aviv, who shared his story of fighting for Israel in 1978 when he was hit with a bullet. It was a direct shot to his left temple leaving him disabled for the rest of his life. He was lucky to be alive. In addition to Yisrael, there were hundreds of men at our hotel who became severely disabled while fighting for Israel. Some, like Yisrael, can barely walk anymore, even with the aid of a cane or a walker. Others are amputees, missing an arm or a leg, and bound to a wheelchair for the rest of their lives. Others still, were not injured while on active duty, but rather suffered life-long disabilities from a terrorist explosion while waiting at a bus stop just trying to get back to the base after a weekend off. They were at the Dead Sea to find some temporary relief from their disabling pain through the therapeutic powers of the Dead Sea.

They come each year for two or three weeks, and most of the hotels are very accommodating to their needs, displaying a level of handicapped accessibility that is unmatched anywhere in the world. The Israeli Government pays for their much-deserved vacation, but if it is not taken by the end of the year, the opportunity is lost. Thus, many of them make their vacation to the Dead Sea at the end of every December; making the Dead Sea, in essence, the unofficial convention and reunion of Israel’s disabled veterans.

I spent an hour talking about politics and religion with a couple of veterans who were on the beach with their wives. One of these men, whose foot was blown off by a land mine in the Sinai Desert in 1956, explained that he and his wife had been coming to the Dead Sea for three decades and it is the only time he feels any relief from his injuries. When I remarked to the other veteran how nice it is that the Israeli government provides them with a complimentary vacation for a couple of weeks, he looked me in the eyes, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, “Trust me, we paid for it.”

I’m glad that in death, Leona Helmsley (born Lena Mindy Rosenthal) has been able to improve on her reputation. The woman who served a prison term, famously said that only the little people should pay taxes, and left the bulk of her $4 billion estate to her Maltese, has posthumously become philanthropic to some very important causes.

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