Haggadah Feeling – Some Fresh Haggadot for Passover

I began collecting different versions of the haggadah, the Passover seder’s playbook-script-manual, when I was in college. It all started by ordering a new one each year in anticipation of the holiday and somehow my collection now exceeds 100 and has demanded its own bookcase. This pales in comparison with the vast haggadah collection of Irwin Alterman of blessed memory, a brilliant community leader in Detroit who passed away earlier this month and had an exquisite library of some 1,500 haggadahs. His son, a childhood friend, tells me that plans are underway to allow the public to admire his collection soon.

For many Jewish families the version of the haggadah is as much a family tradition as the food served during the seder meal. Just ask many Jewish Americans and they’ll tell you about their deep connection to the Maxwell House Haggadah from childhood seders.

The 21st century, however, has seen a seismic shift from the rather bland (and free) Maxwell House Haggadah to more creative versions. And that transition has also afforded many Jewish families some poetic liberties with the seder script. The more traditional families have always tended toward the keva (Hebrew for rote or routine), while more progressive families allowed for more kavvanah (that unscripted spontaneity)  while telling the Passover story. Truthfully, the seder was always intended to be a symposium or talk-feast with an ample mix of both keva and kavvanah. A famous rabbi quoted in the haggadah believes one must only mention the paschal lamb, matzah and bitter herb to fulfill the obligation of the seder. The rest as they say is commentary.

So when a family is ready to make the move to a new haggadah, what should they look for? It’s important to remember that adopting a new hagaddah can be a costly investment at first. While the Maxwell House Haggadah came compliments of the coffee corporation, today’s options can cost around $20 each which adds up when all twenty-five guests require a copy. The haggadah will be reused year after year (with an increasing amount of wine stains and matzah crumbs) and that’s why it’s important to choose the right one at first.

My two favorites in my collection are the (Arthur) Szyk Haggadah and the (David) Moss Haggadah, but these works of art are more suited to be displayed on the coffee table than used at the seder table. So I’m going to recommend a few options that your family might consider adopting for annual use at the seder.

WELLSPRINGS OF FREEDOM: THE RENEW OUR DAYS HAGGADAH
(wellspringshaggadah.com)
This haggadah was edited and published by Rabbi Ron Aigen, a Reconstructionist rabbi in Montreal who has also edited a siddur and a machzor (high holiday prayerbook). This haggadah draws on several modern scholars to provide the commentary of the familiar tale of freedom from slavery. It contains more of the biblical narrative than other haggadahs and uses a “split screen” format meaning the page is divided between the spoken story-line of the seder and the personal, inner journey found in the commentaries. This haggadah, with colorful artwork every dozen or so pages, encourages the leader to be creative and engaging.

JONATHAN SACKS HAGGADA
(www.korenpub.com)
Maggid, a division of Koren Publishers in Jerusalem, offers a haggadah with two texts in one. The traditional text is joined by a collection of thought-provoking essays by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth. The newly revised edition, recently released, includes a new translation and layout. The essays are scholarly, yet eloquent. Sacks addresses the relationship between Passover, Jewish identity, and Jewish history, as well as the role of Passover in Western political imagination and offers new interpretations of the traditional haggadah text.

MY HAGGADAH: MADE IT MYSELF
(madeitmyselfbooks.com)
The Passover seder is unique in that it is a serious discussion around the dinner table that is meant to include both adults and children. But that can also post challenges when the children are very young. Francine Hermelin Levite created her own very kid-friendly haggadah several years ago to keep the little ones enthused. Now, with help from Reboot.com she has made it available for purchase. Packed with nearly 40 pages of engaging, open-ended questions and drawing prompts to do before, during, or after the seder, this haggadah creates lively Passover conversations around the table. Children are able to personalize the traditional story through their own pictures and art (it comes with stickers). The simple, creative haggadah is built around the 15 steps of the seder and, while it is an out-of-the-box publication, it still includes the basic blessings, songs and stories. The essence of the seder is to ask questions and drum up discussion. Hermelin Levite’s haggadah helps that process along (and with little kids there isn’t much time to waste before the eating begins).

BRONFMAN HAGGADAH
(bronfmanhaggadah.com)
The well-known Jewish philanthropist and international communal leader Edgar M. Bronfman has joined with his wife, artist Jan Aronson, to produce a radical reimagining of the Passover text. The inspirational readings that Bronfman included span from Frederick Douglas to Ralph Waldo Emerson and poet Marge Piercy. The underlying message of the Bronfman Haggadah is that we all possess the capacity for peace and understanding. The watercolor paintings are stunning and are sure to evoke discussion. It’s evident that Bronfman spent a great deal of time putting his version of the haggadah together and it’s sure to become a popular fixture on seder tables this Passover. It’s been described as an “engaging and interactive contemporary account of Passover, which will foster meaningful and constructive dialogue between Jews and non-Jews alike.”

HAGGADOT.COM
If you don’t like anything you see in already published haggadahs, there’s a website that allows you to become the creator and publish your own. As the introduction on haggadot.com states, “Passover is about freedom. But when it comes to the seder, many of us are lost. This website is a resource for Jews of all backgrounds to make the Haggadah that finally feels meaningful for a contemporary seder, with unique perspectives gathered from individuals worldwide.” With an array of classical texts and contemporary interpretations, this website allows the user to create a more personalized version with original writings and artwork. The creators invite users to mix and match content from other users as well as previously published haggadot so that one family’s haggadah may include selections from a 16th century haggadah interspersed with feminist and social justice readings or poetry. The final step is a PDF copy that can be reproduced for seder guests. Wine stains? Just print a new copy. Of course, as the children get older an amended, more comprehensive version can be created and used.

There’s no shortage of haggadahs on the market. Each denomination of modern Judaism has published its own version. And as more haggadahs are available each year more families are reconsidering how they present their seder, the most practiced Jewish ritual today. It’s encouraging to see this change in culture from a rote Maxwell House seder to an embrace of creativity and creating the opportunity for multi-generational dialogue. After all, that’s the whole point of the Passover seder.

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

Fun Passover Activities for the Seder and Beyond

Passover, which begins on March 25, is one of the most widely observed Jewish holidays. Each year during the Passover seder, Jewish people attempt to integrate the old traditions of the holiday with innovations. Mostly, these innovations are meant to keep the children (and many of the adults too!) alert and engaged during the seder.

Innovations in the Haggadah are certainly valuable for keeping things fresh at the seder while still sticking to the centuries-old script. However, for young children it can be a frustrating and kvetchy experience as they watch each adult at the table take a turn reading the midrashic commentary of our ancestors’ exodus from Egyptian slavery — no matter how lovely the artwork is in the newly published Haggadah.

Rabbi Vicki Tuckman, on the ReformJudaism.org website, writes that the “most important thing in leading a Passover seder is feeling that you have the freedom (pun intended) to be as creative as possible.” These days many families — especially those with young children — are scrapping the traditional seder symposium and opting for fun activities that keep everyone participating. Some families I spoke with pitch tents in their living room and tell the Passover story while pretending to be the Israelites camped out in the desert.

In the weeks leading up to Passover, which arrives quite early this year, I had the opportunity to review a few games and activities that I plan to use to keep my kids having fun at the seder this year. Some of them I’ve been using for years and others I’ve only discovered this year.


PASSOVER BINGOTamara Pester, a Denver lawyer, sent me this game back in January and my kids started playing it right away. They enjoy playing Bingo and I was thrilled to see them using Bingo cards with some educational value rather than a bunch of numbers. Pester came up with the idea for Passover Bingo when she saw her niece and nephew getting restless during the family seder. “Instead of drudging through the Hagaddah, wondering when it’s time to eat,” she explains, “people will be motivated to follow along with the story of Exodus. Guests at your traditional Seder will be participating and paying rapt attention to the pages, thanks to this easy-to-play game.”

The game retails for $24.99 and features six colorful game boards with Passover keywords such as Egypt and Elijah. The game also includes 96 foam markers, and is recommended for children ages three and up. To help fund the project, Pester turned to Jewcer.com, which offers crowd-sourced funding for Jewish projects. “Actually, the Jewcer people contacted me because they’d never done a promotion with a product before,” she said. The Jewcer site waived fees and helped Pester raise nearly $3,000 for the game. Pester’s sold over 150 of the games through Jewcer, the Passover Bingo website, and several synagogue gift stores.

PLAGUES BAGS
I first discovered the Plagues Bags back in the late 1990s when I saw an ad for them in Moment Magazine. I ordered one and began to use it at my family’s seder which I started leading after my grandfather passed away in 1994. It became a custom at our seder for my young cousins Jeff and Ben to put on the hand puppets of Moses and Pharaoh respectively and act out the dialogue between the two. The two cousins are now in their mid-20s and, while their hands no longer fit in the plastic puppets, they’re good sports and still play along.

Rabbi Alan Silverstein thought so highly of the Plagues Bags that he decided his synagogue would take over the sale of them each year. In 2001 my wife and I moved to Caldwell, New Jersey where I served an internship at Congregation Agudath Israel with Rabbi Silverstein. He put my wife in charge of the Plagues Bags and that year she reported to me that they had sold several thousand in the week before Passover.

What’s so great about the Plagues Bags? They encourage the seder participants to have fun during what could otherwise be a very tense time during the seder. The horrible plagues God brought upon the Egyptians, including the death of the firstborn children, can be difficult to explain to children. It’s also getting close to the festive meal and everyone is hungry at this point in the seder. The “toys” inside the Plagues Bags help the seder leader keep everyone’s attention and bring some levity to the “talk-feast”.

JEWISH HOLIDAYS IN A BOX
At JewishHolidaysInABox.com, they’ve completed a new guide called “Celebrate Passover: How to Plan a Fun, Simple Seder”. This creative guide helps families who are novices when it comes to the Pesach seder or want to make their standard seder more engaging and fun. Their The 3-part downloadable package comes with a 36-page PDF + 2 audio tutorials and is available on the Jewish Holidays in a Box website.

RESOURCES FOR INNOVATIVE AND FUN SEDERS
Two books I recommend to help seder leaders enliven the seder each year are David Arnow’s “Creating Lively Passover Seders” and Ron Wolfson’s “The Passover Seder: The Art of Jewish Living”. Danielle Dardashti and Roni Sarig also have a great chapter with some fun Passover seder projects for children in their book “The Jewish Family Fun Book”. All three books are published by Jewish Lights Publishers. This year the Foundation for Jewish Camp has published an activity book for the seder to promote its “One Happy Camper” program. The activity book includes games, Madlibs, and even Capture the Flag using the afikomen.

The Foundation for Jewish Camp’s “Camp Passover” activity book for the seder

SKITS
Many families perform skits during their seder, which is a great way to observe the commandment that we should all act as though we were actually part of the exodus from Egyptian bondage. Behrman House, a wonderful educational publishing house, has a couple scripts on their website. “Seder Time” is a skit by Stan Beiner, a well known Jewish educator who created Sedra Scenes. Meredith Shaw Patera’s “The Courage of Nachshon” is another good skit available on the Behrman House Passover activity website. Aish Hatorah lists ways for participants to act out the ten plagues on their website.

On Facebook and Twitter I asked people to share some of the innovative activities they have adopted at the seder to keep the children participating and the adults from dozing off. Here are some of my favorites:

Rabbi Michael S. Jay: We’ve had children prepare commercials for Matzah or other symbols of the Seder.

Rabbi David Locketz: I find out what songs all the kid who are coming have learned at school and then incorporate them into magid. Give out parts in advance and we act it out in song and brief dialogues.

David Kaufman: We had all the kids bring knapsacks filled with the items they would want to make sure they brought out of Egypt. Then, when we begin Maggid, we all get up from the table, they take their knapsacks, and we make an “exodus” into the living room. There, we start doing Maggid, and the kids also show us what they would bring and explain why.

Prof. Michael Satlow: I had the kids do a play of the Exodus from the Egyptian perspective. It really taught me something and opened discussion.

Jennifer Levin Teper: I make oragami frogs and use them as placecards. Then everyone, can “jump” them during the seder. Our favorite is trying to get it to land in your water glass.

Melanie Dunkelman Hartong: I found silly masks of the plagues at my local Kroger- kids thought it was hysterical!!

Lynn Davis: We throw plagues (tiny plastic animals, etc.) but I realize that a rowdy seder isn’t for everyone!

Rabbi Judah Isaacs: My sister buys a Pesach puzzle and gives out the pieces for answers to questions. She has the kids put the puzzle together during the Seder.

Shawn Broida: When our kids were little and we knew we couldn’t get 6 cousins under age 8 to sit through a seder, we decided to do a bedouin seder on the floor and let them roam! Aside from a few almost disasters with the seder plate getting kicked across the room, it was more relaxing for everyone and the kids had a ball!

I wish everyone a Chag Sameach… may your seders be educational, innovative, and memorable!

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

Enough Senseless Tragedies Like Sandy Hook

A movie theater. A Sikh house of worship. An elementary school.

How long until we say enough gun violence in our nation? These tragic events get the media coverage because they are the result of gun violence on a large scale, but there are horrific murders and suicides in our nation all the time which are the result of guns and bullets.

Earlier today I took part in a conference call for rabbis about the recent tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Rabbi David Lerner, founder of Clergy Against Bullets, and Rabbi Jeffery Silberman, a chaplain and Director of Spiritual Care at Danbury Hospital in Connecticut (ten miles from Newtown), both spoke to the more than 100 rabbis on the call. There were Jewish texts that were cited, but ultimately the discussion turned to the need for comprehensive gun reform in our nation.

This evening I represented the local Jewish community at a candlelight vigil for the victims. The following are the words I spoke in an attempt to put the tragedy into perspective, bring healing and also encourage people that we must work to put an end to gun violence.

I have been asked to speak here this evening as a rabbi and as a representative of our Jewish community, however, I would not be fully honest if I didn’t tell you that I also stand here in my most important capacity – a Dad. As a father of two 1st graders I couldn’t help but look at the adorable faces of those children and think about my own children. This violent act was senseless, immoral, brutal and truly vicious. But it was not unspeakable. We, as God’s children, MUST speak about it.

In the portion of the Torah which Jewish people will read in synagogue this coming Shabbat, we hear the voice of Joseph asking if his father is still alive. After revealing himself to his shocked brothers, the first words out of his mouth concern his loved one and whether he is alive or dead. Last Friday, it was the other way around. It was parents asking if their child was still alive. With concern in their voice, they asked the question that no parent should ever have to ask.

In Judaism, we have a mitzvah, a commandment, from Leviticus 19:16 that says lo ta’amod al dam re’echa  — You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor. And I know this is a core ethical precept in all of our faith traditions. Just as we all share the value of Tikkun Olam, that we must all serve as God’s partners in making the world a better place, so too we must hold up the banner that we cannot stand by as our fellow humans, indeed our nation’s children, are being shot dead in school.

We are so much better than that. We have a responsibility to protect each other. To ensure that violence always loses out to peace. That life trumps death. We owe it to the kids who perished and to those who are back at school. We owe it to fellow parents and grandparents.
I don’t have an answer to the question of “where God was” at that school on that fateful day in Connecticut. None of us does. But we do have a mission in front of us. Let us work together so that tragedies such as this are relegated to the history books and our future will be so much brighter.

As a tribute to the victims of this tragedy and to all who mourn, I offer this prayer written by my colleague Rabbi Naomi Levy:

Our hearts are breaking, God,
As our nation buries innocent children and brave teachers.
The loss is overwhelming.
Send comfort and strength, God, to grieving parents,
To siblings, family and friends in this time of shock and mourning.
Shield them from despair.
Send healing to the schoolchildren who are lost and frightened
Whose eyes witnessed unfathomable horrors.
Ease their pain, God,
Let their fears give way to hope.
Let their cries give way once more to laughter.

Bless us, God,
Work through us.
Turn our helplessness into action.
Teach us to believe that we can rise up from this tragedy
With a renewed faith in the goodness of our society.
Shield us from indifference
And from our tendency to forget.
Open our hearts, open our hands.
Innocent blood is calling out to us to act.
Remind us that we must commit ourselves to prevent further bloodshed
With all our hearts and souls.
Teach us perseverance and dedication.
Let us rise up as one in a time of soul-searching and repair
So that all children can go to school in peace, God,
Let them be safe.

God of the brokenhearted,
God of the living, God of the dead,
Gather the souls of the victims
Into Your eternal shelter.
Let them find peace in Your presence, God.
Their lives have ended
But their lights can never be extinguished.
May they shine on us always
And illuminate our way.
Amen.

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

Scammers Add to the Tragedy of Noah Pozner

Cross-posted to the Jewish Techs blog at The New York Jewish Week

When the names of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut were announced, Jewish media outlets immediately published articles about the youngest victim Noah Pozner, the Jewish 6-year-old who was laid to rest earlier this week in a traditional Jewish funeral officiated by the family’s rabbi, Shaul Praver of Congregation Adath Israel in Newtown.

As if the story of this tragedy couldn’t get any worse news reports have surfaced that individuals have sought to capitalize off the Pozner family’s heartache. A man named Jason Martin rushed to purchase the internet domain noahpozner.com. After the Pozner family had the noahpozner.com website transferred to its ownership, Victoria Haller, Noah’s aunt, emailed Martin. He wrote back that he’d meant “to somehow honor Noah and help promote a safer gun culture. I had no ill intentions I assure you.”

The purchase of noahpozner.com wasn’t the least of the surprising acts done by individuals not associated with the Pozner family. It was what was published on that website. Adding to the grieving family’s sorrow, someone the family didn’t know began soliciting donations in Noah’s memory, claiming that they would send any cards, packages and money collected to his parents and siblings. An official-looking website had been set up at noahpozner.com, even including petitions on gun control.

According to an AP story, Noah Pozner’s uncle, Alexis Haller, “called on law enforcement authorities to seek out these despicable people. These scammers are stealing from the families of victims of this horrible tragedy.” Noah Pozner’s family learned of the scam after a friend received an email asking for money for the family. The email was poorly punctuated and listed an address for donations with which the Pozners where unfamiliar.

Noah Pozner was the youngest of the 1st grade victims at the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

While scams such as this one against the Pozners are all too common following a tragedy, it is still disturbing to the majority of people who live ethically. It is also outrageous that this family in mourning should have to deal with such a travesty and be hassled with having to deal with these scammers.

Ken Berger, the president and CEO of Charity Navigator, was quoted in the AP article. He said, “It’s abominable. It’s just the lowest kind of thievery.”

The noahpozner.com website now displays the eulogy his mother delivered at his funeral as well as several photos of the adorable 6-year-old who loved tacos. Donations to Noah’s Ark of Hope can be made on the site and a disclaimer clearly states that “This is the only official website for payment to directly and solely benefit the siblings of Noah Pozner.”

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

Jewish Children and Halloween: Point-Counterpoint

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

Rabbi Aaron Starr

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

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

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

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


Rabbi Jason Miller

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

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

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

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

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

Summer Camp Online Photos: The Good, the Bad and the Oy Vey

Like many parents I was concerned that my son wasn’t getting enough sleep while he was away at sleep-away camp. As it turns out, it was my wife’s lack of sleep that posed a bigger concern. Each night beginning around 11:30 she would sit anxiously in front of the computer screen scanning each new photograph as it was uploaded from the camp. It was a slow process that lasted well into the wee hours.

On the slim chance that she caught a glimpse of our son in one of the photos, the analysis would begin. Was he wearing the same t-shirt that he was wearing in the photo two days ago? Did he misplace his glasses since he wasn’t wearing them? Did he look sunburned? Did he make new friends since he was posing in the photo with the same friend from last time? Was he showering? Was he brushing his teeth? Was he having fun?

This new parental anxiety is thanks to the advanced technology now available to sleep-away summer camps. In the “olden days” (more than five years ago), parents had to wait until junior returned home to see photos from his camp experience. Now, summer camps have invested in a few digital cameras and an Internet connection so there’s simply no excuse not to post the daily collection of photos. But is it healthy? After all, just because the technology is available doesn’t mean it has to be used.

Evidence that this has become a national trend among sleep-away camp parents (many day camps post daily photos too) came in the form of a popular animation video this summer. The video, which was created on xtranormal.com and posted to YouTube, mocked the “helicopter parent” who is addicted to scanning the camp website for photos of her child. Many parents with children at Jewish sleep-away camp found it funny and relatable.

In the video (below), two cartoon animals portraying mothers are discussing summer camp. It is obvious that the character whose son is away at sleep away camp is Jewish and the character unfamiliar with the culture is not. The Jewish character keeps saying “refresh” until the other character finally asks why she repeats that word uncontrollably. She explains that it is because she spends many hours late at night refreshing the summer camp’s website to see if a photo of her son has been uploaded. The other character finds it odd that she has just spent a large amount of money to send her son away for a few weeks during the summer only to neurotically check the camp’s website each night to catch a glimpse of her son.

It’s no accident that the online posting of summer camp photos each day has become de rigueur for Jewish sleep-away camps across the nation. A man named Ari Ackerman made sure of it. When Ackerman was in graduate school, he wrote the business plan for Bunk1. He thought of it as a “one-way window into the camp world” so parents would be able to get a taste of what their children were experiencing while away from home for a few weeks each summer. From fewer than 100 camps a decade ago, Ackerman’s Bunk1 now boasts over 1,000 camps that utilize his web application to showcase a couple hundred random photos each night.

Camp directors who thought the daily online photo gallery wasn’t a good idea were pressured by zealous parents who demanded such transparency. Many parents do note the odd culture that has been created with the obsessive scanning of photos just to see that their child is still alive and well. One parent wrote on the Bunk1 blog, “Anybody else here see the irony of confiscating your kids electronics and sending them off into a Wi-Fi free zone, only to spend the summer obsessed with electronics yourself?”

The problem with this new phenomenon is that the photo doesn’t tell the whole story of the child’s day at camp. Analyzing a photograph which only documents one second of a very busy day at camp can lead to unnecessary anxiety. The camper could have spent the day happily engaged in her favorite activities and only at the end of the day when she was exhausted was a candid photo taken of her and posted to the camp’s website. The parents immediately repost it to their Facebook account with the message, “Uh oh… Our daughter looks exhausted and unhappy at camp! Concerned.”

One sleep-away camp staff member who fielded calls from parents this summer recounted that most of the urgent inquiries from parents were prompted by the online photos. Neurotic parents wanted to know why their children were never in the photos (“my child’s friend is in every photo”), why they were never in photos at the beach, why they were wearing someone else’s clothes, and why they weren’t wearing a hat when it was very sunny out. It seems these online photos, while posted with the best intentions, have caused more concern for parents.

A recent column in Time Magazine focused on this online camp photo gallery phenomenon theorizing that it is a “nod to helicopter parents’ inability to cut the cord.” One parent quoted in the column exclaimed, “I totally am stalking my kids.”

Camp was once a safe place where kids didn’t have to worry about their parents watching them. They were free to just grow and enjoy themselves. The new technology, however, changes that.

Demonstrating that camp directors aren’t thrilled about this new culture, the article in Time quotes Sam Perlin, the director of Camp Solomon Schechter in Olympia, Washington. He explained, “In the beginning, it was like, Wow, how cool. Now I spend much of my day answering phone calls from parents who say, I don’t see a picture of my kid, or, They’re not smiling — are they having a good time?”

For some parents, just recognizing the back of their child’s head in a photo is reassuring that at least he’s not in the clinic. However, parents survived for many generations not seeing current photos of their children at summer camp. Just because the technology is now available for camps to post these photos doesn’t mean they should feel compelled to do so. After all, there are many other technologies that camps can utilize but have decided that it’s not healthy. The online camp photo phenomenon is a wonderful example of what happens when new technology changes the equilibrium.

Camps should wait until the end of a session to post the photos. Parents will get a lot more sleep that way.

A version of this appeared in the Detroit Jewish News. Cross-posted to The Jewish Techs blog at The Jewish Week.
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Boy With Stutter Raps Adon Olam

I was looking forward to meeting many of the inspirational educators and thought leaders at the #140edu conference in New York City this week, but the one speaker I was really excited to meet was Lil Jaxe.

A few months ago, I watched a video of this 13-year-old boy at a previous #140conf and was amazed, impressed, and inspired. Lil Jaxe has a severe stutter, but he discovered that when he raps it goes away. So, it’s a good thing for him that he’s a talented rapper. And he’s only 13 so I’m predicting that he’s got a very successful career ahead of him.

Lil Jaxe presented before me at the #140edu conference today and I had a chance to shmooze with him a bit in the Green Room at the 92nd St. Y after his presentation. Here’s the video of our discussion which includes him rapping the Jewish prayer Adon Olam as he did back in April at his bar mitzvah.

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

Jewish Summer Camp and Customer Service

This Shabbat we read the double Torah portion Mattot-Masei. Last year, I wrote a d’var Torah for this Shabbat extolling the virtues of Jewish summer camp. This year, Jewish summer camp is on my mind again.

On Wednesday night, Rabbi David Krishef, a Conservative rabbi in Grand Rapids, Michigan, did what any father would do. He advocated on behalf of his son. Rabbi Krishef published a long exposé on his blog that detailed what his family had endured over the past few days after being told that his 16-year-old son Solomon, who is blind, would not be able to spend the second part of the summer at camp. The reason the new camp director at Camp Ramah in Canada gave for this decision was that Solomon required more assistance from the camp’s staff members than the camp could adequately provide. The bottom line was that the camp could no longer effectively accommodate a camper like Solomon, even though he had spent several successful summers at the camp in previous years.

Photo on  Camp Ramah in Canada’s website of Solomon Krishef with a staff member

Rabbi Krishef’s blog post went viral. Well, at least in the Jewish community it did. Several people (myself included) posted a link to the blog post on Facebook and watched as dozens of people commented about this travesty and dozens more shared the link on their own Facebook pages. In the end, the camp director reversed his decision welcoming Solomon back to camp, although the 16-year-old blind teen weighed the decision and ultimately determined that after all the commotion he would not return for the remainder of the summer.

Of course there is probably much more to the story than what Rabbi Krishef blogged about. The camp director didn’t make his decision in a vacuum and it must have been a difficult decision to come to. But it raises several important issues about summer camp and keeping the publicity about camp positive.

The most important rule about summer camp is that the campers are safe and having fun. Solomon’s safety was not compromised. The camp director said the blind teen took too long at meals and in the shower and there wasn’t ample staff coverage to assist him. These problems can easily be remedied. Mistakes were clearly made and there was poor “customer service” coming from the camp.


I felt bad sharing Solomon’s plight when I posted the link to Rabbi Krishef’s blog on my Facebook page because I knew it would have negative consequences for this Ramah camp and the new director. [Full disclosure: In 2005 I served as Rabbi-in-Residence at Camp Ramah in Canada, and my friend was suddenly and unfairly released of his duties as director last year.]

The lesson in this is that every camp director needs to realize what it means to be in the customer service industry. Like any business, camps need to advance and be innovative. The leadership also must recognize the power of social media in the 21st century. Social media reigns king and that means that if a customer isn’t happy with their service at Best Buy or Starbucks, they will take their rant to the social networks where it will be “liked,” commented on and shared across other networks exponentially. As demonstrated by the angry father of a blind teen with a blog, this is also the case at Jewish summer camp.

Jewish summer camp means Jewish parents. While it may be fair to describe some of these parents as neurotic, the fact remains that all Jewish parents care deeply about the livelihood of their children. That means that they want their children to all feel special, safe and secure while at camp. No parents want to hear that the camp can’t accommodate their child for any reason.

Today is the first day of the new month of Av according to the Hebrew calendar. It is the beginning of a period of mourning for the Jewish people as we recall the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. In fact, this Hebrew month is often called “Menachem Av” because we desire comfort during this sad period. Camp Ramah in Canada will also require menachem as it deals with this matter internally and externally (a petition was signed by campers and staff appealing to the director to let Solomon stay). 

I’m glad that the camp director reversed his decision and apologized to Solomon and the Krishef family. That was a good resolution. But the lesson has to be learned. In the 21st century, it is not enough for a camp to have a program for special needs children and teens. It must seek to accommodate all children and help them feel safe and happy at camp. Camp directors must lead by example and always seek to do good and to make wise decisions. They must try to always accommodate.


It is often said that a parent is only as happy as his saddest child. So too it is for summer camp directors. Try to keep all your kids as “happy campers” and the camp will be a happy place too.

Shabbat Shalom.

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

Savvy Auntie Blessings

There is something very special about an aunt and uncle’s relationship with their nieces and nephews. No one has demonstrated the importance of the relationship between an aunt and her nieces and nephews better than Melanie Notkin, who launched SavvyAuntie.com. Here is the second column I have published on the SavvyAuntie.com blog and it is in honor of my children’s Aunt Stephanie:

Blessing my children is something I do every Friday night before we begin our family Sabbath dinner. Last week, I had the opportunity – actually the honor – to bless my children’s Savvy Auntie. Officiating at the wedding of my sister-in-law Stephanie made me realize just how meaningful she is in the lives of my children. More important than being my wife’s sister or my sister-in-law is her role as “Auntie Steffi.”

The focus of any wedding is on the bride and groom (or on the two brides or the two grooms for that matter). But my children were made to feel so important and special during their aunt’s entire wedding weekend. She was constantly giving them little tasks to perform, having them believe that the success of the wedding depended on their help.

Photo: Nutdanai Apikhomboonwaroot

For months leading up to the wedding, all my children talked about was Auntie Steffi’s wedding. They anticipated her big day as much as she did. Part of the excitement for them was venturing to a beautiful, tropical destination where they would play with their favorite aunt on the beach and in the pool before watching her get married and celebrating well past their bedtimes. They haven’t stopped talking about Auntie Steffi’s wedding weekend since returning home.

My children’s aunt is always showering them with gifts. As a librarian, she makes it a point to send books every few months that are carefully selected based on the interests of each child. The first thing she did when we arrived at the hotel at the beginning of her wedding weekend was present her nephews with embroidered groomsmen shirts and an adorable pink flower girl shirt for her niece.

When my daughter was a toddler, Auntie Steffi had her convinced that she was a princess. At school, she would tell her friends about her aunt who was a “real live princess.” Seeing Stephanie walk down the aisle in her beautiful wedding dress, perfectly applied makeup and fashionable hairstyle even had me convinced she was royalty on this special day.

As the rabbi standing under the chuppah (wedding canopy) with my children’s aunt and her groom, I had the pleasure of helping them sanctify their marriage. I offered my blessings that their now intertwined lives would be full of love and security, romance and peace. I have the good fortune to bless many happy couples during their wedding ceremony. The difference was that at this wedding I also blessed my children’s Savvy Auntie and gave thanks for everything she does for my children.

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

Harold Grinspoon Invests in Jewish Families Through PJ Library

Jewish philanthropists of the “mega” variety are always looking for the best ways to use their fortune to benefit the Jewish community. Many of them have set up philanthropic foundations and have paid professionals advising them how to realize the best return on investment for their substantial donations.

In the past two decades, billionaire donors like Les Wexner, Michael Steinhardt, Lynn Schusterman, Sheldon Adelson and the Bronfman family have infused millions of dollars into free 10-day trips to Israel for young adults (Birthright Israel), entrepreneurial programs for rabbis and Jewish educators (STAR Foundation), Jewish teen (BBYO) and college campus initiatives (Hillel), Shabbat enrichment endeavors for synagogues (SYNaplex), and educational programs for adults (Wexner Heritage).
The mega donor whose large scale creative giving has impressed me the most over the past few years is an unassuming, Jewish immigrant who made his fortune in the real estate market. Harold Grinspoon established his foundation to promote Jewish life among young people, adults and families. To date, he’s infused north of $110 million into the Jewish community and has done so without much fanfare.

Harold Grinspoon recognized early on that Jewish summer camps for children have the ability to provide a 24/7 enriching Jewish experience to the future leaders of the Jewish people. While he had the ability to donate millions to Jewish camps to afford underprivileged children with a Jewish camp experience, he went several steps further.

With Harold Grinspoon at Camp Maas in Ortonville, Michigan.

Through the Grinspoon Institute for Jewish Philanthropy, Harold Grinspoon set out to enhance the long-term effectiveness of nonprofit overnight camps. Rather than simply sending more Jewish children to summer camp Grinspoon was determined to improve the camps through intensive leadership training of the staff (young future leaders), enhancing the internal philanthropic environment of each camp, and making capital improvements to allow for more and better programming. Dozens of Jewish camps around North America share their success stories on the Grinspoon Institute’s website.

While large philanthropic giving to Jewish summer camps is not a novel idea, the way Harold Grinspoon leveraged his investments to Jewish camps was creative and will have lasting positive implications for the Jewish community.

But Jewish camping is not Grinspoon’s only philanthropic love. In February 2010 I read an article in the Boston Globe by Eric Moskowitz about Grinspoon’s PJ Library that had just given away its 2 millionth book. I made some notes on a hard copy of the article and planned to write about it on this blog. Somehow the article got filed away and I missed the opportunity.

And then I received an email message yesterday from close friends Cindy and Neil Goldstein of Livingston, NJ. We became friends with the Goldsteins when my wife and I lived in Caldwell, NJ during the final three years of my rabbinical training at the Jewish Theological Seminary. We had our first children just days apart and have remained good friends since.

The Goldstein’s email message explained that Harold Grinspoon arrived at their home on Wednesday to present their daughter Jordana with the PJ Library’s 3 millionth book, Noah’s Swim-a-Thon. I immediately pulled that Boston Globe article out of my file cabinet.

PJ Library Founder Harold Grinspoon reads to Jordana Goldstein at her home in Livingston, NJ

Harold Grinspoon’s creative philanthropic idea for the PJ Library, which distributes free Jewish-themed books and music CDs to children all over North America each month, came from none other than Dolly Parton. Grinspoon explained to the Boston Globe, “I’m in the car one day listening to public radio and I hear that a gal by the name of Dolly Parton is giving away free books to disadvantaged families.”

Grinspoon, who is dyslexic, had not read to his own children when they were young, but he had just been on a flight where he was captivated by a father comforting a crying child with a book. He immediately called Parton’s Imagination Library and arranged to sponsor her program in the Springfield area, where he lives. 

That same spring, he attended a Passover Seder at his son’s house. Around the table in Weston, Grinspoon watched his daughter-in-law give picture books with Jewish themes to each guest. “He was just mesmerized,’’ said Winnie Sandler Grinspoon, his daughter-in-law. “He didn’t even know [such books] existed.’’ 

Grinspoon was surprised by the quality of the stories and illustrations, and more amazed still that his adolescent grandchildren cherished these books from their childhood as much as titles like “Goodnight Moon.’’

He gave his daughter-in-law $500 and told her to buy him a crate of her favorites, which he devoured. Then he dispatched a young assistant to consult with Jewish educators and institutions, with the Imagination Library and packing companies, and present him a report about whether – and how – a Jewish version of Parton’s project might work.

Grinspoon’s PJ Library now sends over 100,000 free books and music to families each month (that figure was only 200 per month in 2005). The program has grown to include, Sifirat Pajama b’America, a division that sends children’s books in Hebrew to Israeli families in North America. Not only have young children and their families been positively affected by Grinspoon’s amazing generosity, but the book publishing industry has seen tremendous growth through the purchasing and distributing of 3 million books in recent years.

Grinspoon reflected at the Goldstein’s home, “While we are thrilled to be delivering the 3 millionth PJ Library book, we won’t rest until we know that every family with Jewish children who wants these wonderful Jewish books is able to receive them… We look forward to delivering the 4 millionth book and 5 millionth book and beyond — and knowing that all across North America and around the world, parents and children are snuggling around PJ Library books, and having special conversations in which parents are transmitting our heritage to the next generation.”

Jewish camping experiences are enduring and have lasting effects on our Jewish community. Those experiences take place outside of the home. Harold Grinspoon’s PJ Library invests in Jewish families by giving parents and grandparents the resources to educate children in the home.

Harold Grinspoon’s dyslexia precluded him from reading to his own children when they were young. As a father who has read dozens and dozens of PJ Library books to my children at bedtime over the past eight years I can honestly say that Harold Grinspoon’s generosity is having a real and meaningful effect. In a way, Harold Grinspoon is now reading to over 100,000 children each month.

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