MSU Hillel: If You Build It

Like many rabbis I’m often asked why I chose to become a rabbi. People are interested to know if there was a pivotal moment in my upbringing that steered me to the rabbinate. In responding to that question I’ve always cited my years as a student leader at Michigan State University Hillel.

A few weekends ago I spent a memorable weekend in East Lansing my eldest child and attended Shabbat festivities at MSU Hillel. It was the first Shabbat I experienced on the MSU campus since my graduation from the university almost fifteen years ago. It proved to be a nostalgic weekend for me and one in which I truly gave thanks for the many gifts that MSU Hillel provided for me.

My son in front of the MSU Hillel building earlier this month.

Early on in my college career there was a fire at the Hillel building. The structure was already old and in need of remodeling. After the fire, students attending events at Hillel would complain of the horrible smell from the fire and water damage. There was no doubt that a new Hillel building was sorely needed.

I became a student leader at MSU Hillel almost immediately. During “Welcome Week” my freshman year I was asked by the president of Hillel if I would be interested in taking a vacant position on the Hillel board. I had served as president of my synagogue youth group as a high school senior and just returned from a summer in Israel on a teen tour so I was eager to get involved in Jewish life on campus. I replied that I was interested and the rest was history.

I jumped right in and soon found myself spending a lot of time at Hillel. During my sophomore year I co-led the student board and was chairman of the Jewish Student Union. So after the fire I had a seat at the table discussing building plans with leaders of the institution’s “adult” board, architects, Jewish Federation leaders and donors. I recall a Federation executive cautioning me not to get excited about seeing the imagined new Hillel building while I was still a student, but that I would one day take pride in knowing I had something to do with its creation.

That lesson from the Federation executive proved true. The invitation to attend Shabbat dinner a few weeks ago was to honor MSU Hillel on the tenth anniversary of its Lester & Jewell Morris Hillel Jewish Student Center. Leading Shabbat evening services on the second floor that night I looked out at the very young looking faces in the congregation and flashed back to the many times I led services as a college student. I looked into the beautiful library room where one student was busily studying and recalled the thousands of hours I spent sitting in the old library of Hillel cramming for final exams, exploring ancient Jewish texts, and writing my admission essays for rabbinical school.

Following services that night my son asked why there were so many students at Shabbat dinner. I explained that Hillel was the only place on campus for students to enjoy a hot, kosher Shabbat meal. I told him how important Hillel is for Jewish students on campus. And then I told him how important Hillel was for me. Without MSU Hillel I don’t know where I would be today.

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

Michigan Wins Sugar Bowl, Receives Kiddush Cup

It’s been a great beginning of 2012 for Michigan sports teams. The Michigan State Spartans won the Outback Bowl in a nail biting 3rd overtime victory, the Michigan Wolverines won last night’s Allstate Sugar Bowl in overtime, and Michigan State beat Wisconsin last night in an exciting down-to-the-buzzer game of college hoops. The Red Wings are neck and neck with the Chicago Blackhawks for first place, the Detroit Pistons are on a two-game winning streak, and the Detroit Lions are in the post-season for the first time since 1999.

There was even an apparent Jewish connection at the end of last night’s Sugar Bowl when Michigan coach Brady Hoke hoisted the Sugar Bowl trophy, which can best be described as a Silver Kiddush Cup Award.

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

When Technology & Shabbat Collide, Give the Benefit of the Doubt

This past Sunday, the president of New York University issued a mass e-mail apology to students and staff. The day after Yom Kippur might sound like a sensible day for issuing apologies, but the question is whether John Sexton actually needed to make a Mea Culpa.

You see, this official apology to the entire university community was for sending an earlier mass e-mail (the university president’s academic year report) on Friday evening when Jewish students were already observing Yom Kippur at Kol Nidrei services. Apparently, the report was supposed to be sent during the day on Friday (before the advent of the holiday), but it was delayed due to technical problems.

While it’s nice that the university president issued this apology before any complaints were even made, I’m not sure how an e-mail coming into one’s inbox on the Day of Atonement is offensive. Personally, I abstain from using my computer or phone (and thus no e-mail) on Shabbat and Jewish holidays, but I’m not offended if messages reach my account during these times.

I don’t think Jewish institutions should send official e-mail messages on Shabbat and holidays, but of course it depends on the type of Jewish organization. A reform temple sending a reminder via e-mail to its membership on Saturday afternoon about a program that evening might not be considered unseemly, but a JCC or Jewish federation releasing a broadcast e-mail message in the middle of Shabbat would be tacky, raising eyebrows and drawing complaints. NYU, a secular institution, shouldn’t worry about sending e-mail messages to the student body on Jewish holidays. Jewish students at NYU were legitimately angered that the second day of classes were held on Rosh Hashanah, but the president’s e-mail message reaching the inbox once Yom Kippur began is not an egregious act. Sexton’s apology is just an example of political correctness gone too far.

There are certainly times when technology and Shabbat or Jewish holidays collide. In some cases, a tactful conversation is necessary. For instance, leaders in my synagogue might send each other casual e-mail messages on Shabbat and Jewish holidays regarding congregational matters. But it is only when a leader sends an e-mail to the entire congregation that it is problematic. True, no one is being forced to turn on their computer and log-in to their e-mail account to read it on Shabbat or a holiday, but it gives the impression that official synagogue business is being conducted on these days and that’s an impression I don’t want to give.
There are other times when technology seems to collide with Shabbat, but without that intention and the benefit of the doubt should be granted. Here are two examples to demonstrate my point:

1) For several years my Facebook account was set up to automatically upload this blog’s RSS feed onto my Facebook page. This process often took a few hours after I published a blog post. So, on one occasion I posted to my blog at around 4:00 p.m. on a Friday afternoon. The blog post wasn’t fed onto my Facebook account until later that evening, after Shabbat began. The following Monday, I received a finger-wagging message through Facebook from a member of my local Jewish community. She commended me on my interesting blog, but questioned how I, as a rabbi and role-model in the community, could publish a blog post on Shabbat.

Even after explaining to her that the actual post was published well before the onset of Shabbat, but that it didn’t posted to my Facebook profile until several hours later, she chastised me for not taking that into account when I originally posted to my blog. I was immediately reminded that certain activities are prohibited even before Shabbat commences lest others think that you have transgressed the laws of Shabbat (i.e, one may not put wheat into the watermill unless there is enough time for it to be ground before the onset of Shabbat).

2) I am an avid user of Constant Contact, the Web based e-mail newsletter marketing application, and I used to send a weekly newsletter to my subscribers on Friday afternoon. On one particular Friday, the site experienced a maintenance problem and it didn’t send the newsletter until Saturday morning. I discovered that the newsletter wasn’t disseminated until Saturday morning when I checked my e-mail following Shabbat. Of all the subscribers, I received only one irate message from an individual who complained that I sent the newsletter during Shabbat. The irony is that he sent his chastising message to me on Shabbat afternoon. I replied with the explanation that Constant Contact experienced maintenance problems, he he responded, “I figured it was something like that. Sorry. And I guess I shouldn’t have responded on Shabbat anyway!”

So, sometimes it’s important to give people the benefit of the doubt when technology and Shabbat collide. Before jumping to conclusions, it’s possible that the message sent to your discussion group on Shabbat was actually sent by someone in Israel where Shabbat had already ended in that timezone. Maybe that message from the Jewish federation’s CEO to the entire community was scheduled before the holiday, but it got delayed in Cyberspace.

And if you’re a college student at NYU who returned home after breaking the fast Saturday night to find that an e-mail message from your university president had been waiting for you in your inbox since Friday night… let it go. Your e-mail account’s Sabbath observance hasn’t been compromised.

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

Avot: My Teachers

Yesterday was Father’s Day. It was my 7th Father’s Day as a Dad. I love Father’s Day because it’s a chance to honor fathers and to appreciate fatherhood.

Yesterday, in addition to thinking about my father and father-in-law who have both been influential teachers in my life, I also took some time to consider the role of my teachers as father figures.

Last month, while in New York City, I spent an afternoon honoring the memory of two of my teachers. I went to the Beit Midrash at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), where I spent six years learning the ancient texts of the Jewish people. There, a gathering of my teachers, classmates, and current rabbinical students paid tribute to Rabbi Morris Shapiro, of blessed memory. Rabbi Shapiro, ordained by Yeshivat Chochmei Lublin, spent many years as a sage consultant in the Beit Midrash where he was available to help students struggling over a passage of Talmud text. This was the 30-day anniversary of his recent death marking the end of the shloshim period and it was a fitting learning session in his honor. Sitting there with my own rabbi — Danny Nevins — and two of my classmates — Josh Cahan and Rachel Ain — I couldn’t help but to think of all the wisdom that Rabbi Shapiro had passed from the Old Country to the rabbis of tomorrow.

From the Seminary, I ventured downtown to an apartment across the street from the Empire State Building. This apartment — the home of my beloved college professor Jonas Zoninsein, of blessed memory — was now a shivah home where his family, friends and colleagues gathered to reminisce about his life. Professor Zoninsein was my teacher at James Madison College at Michigan State. A scholar of Latin American economics, he taught with devotion to the subject and a passion for education. I had the merit of sharing some stories from my undergraduate experience in his classroom with his daughter Manuela.

Both of these teachers were so passionate about their teaching that they took on a fatherly role to their students.

And then yesterday morning, on Father’s Day, I received word that a project I created for one of the many classes I took with Rabbi Neil Gillman at JTS was included in a website in his honor. “Beit Nachum” was created to honor Rabbi Gillman, a theologian who taught at JTS for decades. As the website states, “Just as the students of Hillel and the students of Shammai disseminated and built upon the Torah of their teachers as Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, we honor and build upon the Torah of our teacher as Beit Nachum. We have learned, through Rabbi Gillman’s example, that the words of the living God can inspire lifetime of intellectual integrity, theological courage and humility.”

During my time at the Seminary, Rabbi Gillman played a very father-like role to me and many other students. He was kind and gracious, but wasn’t afraid to let a student know when they possessed the potential to do better. I decided to submit a creative midrash on Akeidat Yitzchak (The Binding of Isaac) for inclusion on the Beit Nachum website. It is the story of this biblical event as told by Isaac as a guest on the Jerry Springer Show. It is evidence of the freedom that Rabbi Gillman gave his students to be creative and to think and write out-of-the-box.

Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there, and to all of my teachers… Thank you.

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

The Cap & Gown Section

I’ve long had a love-hate relationship with the Detroit Jewish News‘ “Cap & Gown Yearbook.” Started in the late 1980’s, the JN includes an entire section in one of its late-May issues devoted to the “best and brightest” high school graduates in the area.

Before I comment on this year’s change in the submission rules, allow me to explain the love-hate relationship I’ve had. [Full disclosure: I cannot include the Cap & Gown issue on my CV.]

I loved the Cap & Gown issue when I was working at the University of Michigan Hillel Foundation in Ann Arbor. At the end of each graduating senior’s bio (AKA “Brag Paragraph”), it listed where they were headed for college. The vast majority were either going to Michigan or Michigan State with a couple handfuls of Ivy Leaguers. Each year when the Cap & Gown section was published, I immediately tore out the pages from the newspaper and marked the incoming class of Jewish kids at U-M with my yellow highlighter. These would be the first freshmen I’d welcome to campus in the fall. Their high school accomplishments were listed right there. I knew who the Jewish youth group leaders were and which of these 18-year-olds had volunteerism in their DNA. The Jewish News was doing my reconnaissance work for me.

Working with high school students is a different story. They are already under such pressure to succeed in high school that making the cut for the Jewish High School Academic Hall of Fame only adds to the stress. Over the past couple decades, the standards for inclusion in the Cap & Gown section have changed. When I was in high school (Andover Class of 1994 for those of you scoring at home), seniors needed a minimum grade point average (GPA) and had to be chosen by their school. That meant it was much more difficult to be one of the top Semites at predominantly Jewish schools like West Bloomfield, Bloomfield Hills Andover, and North Farmington than it was at say Birmingham Seaholm, Detroit Country Day, or any of the Walled Lake schools (this was the 90s after all). In fact, I remember one of my peers from West Bloomfield High School complaining to the Jewish News that she should have been included even though her GPA wasn’t at the newspaper’s standard. She was the editor of the school paper, president of her Jewish youth group, and had a handful of other notable credentials. The paper caved and printed her bio the week after the Cap & Gown issue alongside her irate letter complaining of the unfair selection process.

In the past decade, the standards have eased and there are a lot more graduates included in the Cap & Gown issue. Only 40-some Jewish teens were honored in the first Cap & Gown Yearbook in the late 1980’s, but last year’s section included 224. Even with that many star teens included, there are still many talented and accomplished teens who are left on the sidelines.

As the paper explained in a March 2010 blurb: “[E]very year, whatever criteria the newspaper used to determine eligibility would leave out many deserving students. This year, the Jewish News is inviting every Jewish student who is graduating from a Michigan high school to be part of our new Cap & Gown Yearbook. Publisher Arthur Horwitz said, “We’ve grown from several dozen entries to well over 200 of our community’s high school seniors who attained a qualifying grade point average. It has been one of our most popular issues and a keepsake.”

So, the question is: Why after 20 years of a competitive process (on varying levels), has the Detroit Jewish News decided to include every graduating Jewish high school student into the Cap & Gown Yearbook? Here are some theories:

1) It’s the Economy Stupid: It’s no secret that print media is in hospice care. Newspapers are ending home delivery and magazines are closing (Newsweek was put up for sale just yesterday). The Jewish News has laid off most of its workforce and reduced the hours of those who are left. The Cap & Gown issue generates a lot of money from proud parents, bubbies and zaydies who take out paid advertisements to congratulate their graduates. I’m sure the thinking was that the more teens who are included in the Cap & Gown Yearbook the more ad revenue. And that’s just business — plain and simple.

2) Everyone’s a Winner: In the 21st Century, we’ve become more politically correct and therefore uncomfortable to proclaim winners. The Jewish News simply doesn’t want to be put in a position to say that this young person is an achiever while this one is not. It’s not good for PR (or for selling newspaper subscriptions for that matter) when people perceive that the community’s paper has rejected their daughter.

3) Whose Standards?: I’m hoping that this was ultimately the reason the JN decided to let all who have graduated come and be recognized. Ideally, the Jewish News has realized what most employers realized a long time ago. A person’s GPA only tells part of their story. The many high school graduates who lacked book smarts but spent their high school careers volunteering with disabled children, working part-time jobs, and starring in school theater productions should be celebrated alongside the bookworms who carried 4.0 averages with little extra-curricular notches in their belts.

I’m sure that the Jewish News’ decision to not exclude any Jewish teen from this yearbook was based on a combination of all three of these theories (and likely others too). After all, this also put the Jewish community’s newspaper in the awkward position of deciding who is a Jewish teen. Of course, with every graduating senior being included, the Cap & Gown Yearbook will undoubtedly lose its clout. Will parents be as honored when they see their 3.9 GPA varsity soccer captain who’s headed to Penn listed in the paper next to a 2.0 GPA kid who’s off to Oakland Community College in the fall? We’ll see about that.

The paper articulated the mission of its new Cap & Gown section, explaining, “In recognition of the achievements of all of our high school graduates, this year’s Cap & Gown will be expanded. Think of it as a community-wide version of a high school yearbook. It will show the continuing vitality and promise of our community’s future generation, and the array of higher education choices they are making.”

I’m all for showcasing the promise of our Jewish community’s future generations. I’m just wondering if the lack of a selection process will make this issue too heavy to hold… which I guess is a really good thing for both our community and the Detroit Jewish News. Mazel Tov to all of this year’s high school graduates. You’re all winners!

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

Barack Obama at University of Michigan Commencement

It was recently announced that President Barack Obama will speak at the University of Michigan  commencement this Spring in Ann Arbor. As a Michigan State alum, I hope Obama’s theme is environmentalism and that he finishes his graduation speech with the words: “In conclusion, GO GREEN!!!”

When I graduated MSU in 1998, the commencement speaker was former NBA basketball player Greg Kelser (in photo), who now is a TV commentator alongside George Blaha for the Detroit Pistons. As a senior at Michigan State, Kelser along with Ervin “Magic” Johnson led the Spartans to the 1979 NCAA tournament championship, the first in the school’s history. The year after I graduated, Elie Wiesel addressed Michigan State’s graduating class.

Two years earlier, in 1996, I heard a wonderful commencement address at my wife’s graduation from MSU when White House press correspondent Helen Thomas spoke. The best commencement speech I ever heard at MSU was in the Spring following my freshman year in 1995 when President Bill Clinton delivered the address. I also enjoyed listening to the late NY Times columnist William Safire at my Jewish Theological Seminary commencement in 2004, a memory I blogged about following Mr. Safire’s death this past September.

Perhaps no commencement address, however, compares to Conan O’Brien’s commencement speech to the Havard Class of 2000.

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

Chabad

Chabad Lubavitch has been getting a lot of press recently since the tragic murders of Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg (z”l), the Chabad shlichim (emissaries) in Mumbai, India who were killed by terrorists. Their story underscores the important mission of these Chabadnik leaders willing to relocate their families to far-flung corners of the earth for kiruv (Jewish outreach). I’ve heard from several young people who stopped at the Chabad-Lubavitch Nariman House while backpacking through India only to be treated so warmly by Rabbi Holtzberg and his wife. I experienced similarly warm hospitality when I visited a Chabad House in Sumy, Ukraine a few years ago with students from the University of Michigan.

I have always been amazed and impressed by Chabad’s devotion to the Jewish people. Their marketing machine and political savvy are the envy of Jewish leaders everywhere. But I have also been skeptical at times about their approach and their agenda, especially on college campuses where the Jewish students are hyper-impressionable.

Due to their belief that Rebbe Menachem Schneerson (left) is the mashiach (messiah), many have cynically described Chabad Lubavitch as the closest religion to Judaism. Regardless of this belief, which is often denied by Chabadniks in large metropolitan Jewish communities where such a messianic tenet would not be well received, Chabad is doing important work throughout the globe.

In many Jewish communities, Chabad has taken on the important job of training young people to work with the developmentally disabled through The Friendship Circle. The program, now with over sixty chapters, matches teenage volunteers who become friends and mentors to children with special needs. Chabad has also pioneered important programs in the Former Soviet Union, including in the devastated community of Chernobyl.

If you’re interested in a fair and in-depth study of Chabad Lubavitch, I would highly recommend Sue Fishkoff’s The Rebbe’s Army.

The most daring, insightful coverage of Chabad however can be found in last month’s issue of New Voices magazine. The young columnists of the New Voices journal demystify Chabad, answering questions like: Why, unlike most ultra-Orthodox, do the Lubavitch reach out to rather than reject secular Jews? What do they get when you put on tefillin? Are they Zionist or anti-Zionist? What do they think of mainstream Jewish movements and what do those movements think of them? Do all Lubavitchers even share the same views on these issues?

A blogger on the Moment Magazine blog writes: “Takedown or not, New Voices has done what no other serious Jewish publication has dared do: subject Chabad to the same journalistic scrutiny every powerful, religious movement deserves.”

The New Voices issue includes Chabad-related stories about the Agriprocessors Kosher meat scandal, an interview with a Reform rabbi about the place of Chabad in the religious life of secular Jews, a critique of non-Orthodox support for Chabad, and an exploration of the contemporary meaning of the Chabad headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway.

The interview with the Reform rabbi who shares his thoughts on Chabad is very interesting. The rabbi is Rabbi Rick Jacobs (left), Senior Rabbi of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York. I met Rabbi Jacobs last year at a STAR Foundation PEER Alumni retreat and was extremely impressed. Rabbi Jacobs tells a funny story in the New Voices interview:

I was in midtown Manhattan, and I’m walking down the street and this wonderful friendly warm Chabadnik stops me and says, ‘Are you Jewish?’ I’m walking along, I’m wearing a grey suit. I don’t know, maybe I have curly Jewish hair. I said, ‘Yes, are you?’ And he looked at me and started to laugh and he pointed to his tzitzit and to his beard. I said, ‘You know, appearances are not always reality.

Rick’s story reminds me of another story: Two Jewish Theological Seminary rabbinical students (a man and a woman) were walking by the main gate of Columbia in New York’s Upper West Side when a Chabadnik asked the man if he put on tefillin that morning. His response? “No, but she did!”

I’m not sure what the ultimate attraction to Chabad is for so many — not just the impressionable Jewish college students who flock to Chabad houses for the Rebbetzin’s homemade chicken soup and challah, whiskey shots with the rabbi, or hot cholent on Shabbat afternoon. For some college students it may well be that the Chabad rabbi looks, well, more authentically Jewish than his or her Reform or Conservative rabbi back home — which means more Eastern European and more pious.

The bigger question for me is the new fad of contemporary, progressive Jewish families joining Chabad congregations (in many communities called simply “The Shul”). I know this is driving many rabbis crazy. In some cases, rabbis are seeing their congregants attend Chabad congregations to complement their other synagogue membership. They may go to Chabad for a Shabbat service or even a holiday service (e.g., Simchat Torah), but wouldn’t think of not attending their ancestral synagogue for High Holiday services or to celebrate their child’s bar or bat mitzvah. But in other cases, Reform and Conservative congregations are seeing their membership numbers decrease to the benefit of the Chabad shul down the street. Again, this could be chalked up to the “authenticity factor” or it could be something deeper. Perhaps it is the warmth that the Chabad rabbis display in their outreach efforts much like the warmth that was a trademark of Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, stationed in Mumbai and racking up all those “mitzvah points” through their generosity.

May their memories be for blessings.

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

Morningside Heights to be Visited by Modern-Day Haman

Mahmoud AhmadinejadThis Monday, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, will deliver the keynote address at Columbia University‘s World Leaders Forum. The event is co-sponsored by the School of International and Public Affairs and will be moderated by John H. Coatsworth, Acting Dean of the School of International and Public Affairs.

The “generous” hatemonger has kindly obliged to take part in a question and answer forum at the conclusion of his anti-semitic talk. The Columbia website announces: “If you were unable to register for the event but would still like to submit a question, please email your question to worldleaders@columbia.edu with the subject line, ‘Question for the President of Iran.’ Due to the large volume of questions, we cannot guarantee that yours will be read at the event. Thank you.”

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Lee BollingerOf course, like every other citizen of democracy in their right mind, I find this public, academic forum given to a demonic despot to be utterly unacceptable. I have tremendous respect for President Lee Bollinger (pictured at right) and his strong stance on the freedom of speech issue, however, he should have used his authority to keep this travesty from ever taking place. Here is the Zionist Organization of America’s statement on this event.

Perhaps the most shameful part about this event is that it will take place in Alfred Lerner Hall on the Columbia University campus. Alfred Lerner Hall is named for the late Jewish, billionairre philantropist Al Lerner, who was the former owner of the Cleveland Browns NFL football team. Mr. Lerner was successful in real estate and banking, and was chairman and chief executive of the MBNA Corporation. According to his NY Times obituary from 2002, he was born in Brooklyn, the only child of Jewish immigrants from Russia. The family lived in three rooms behind their candy store and sandwich shop. The family only closed the store three days a year, on Jewish holidays.

Al Lerner is certainly rolling in his grave knowing that this “Modern Day Haman” is speaking in a building named for him. What a shame.

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

Michigan State hires chair of Israel Studies

When I attended Michigan State University from 1994-98, I certainly would not have believed that the university would soon hire an Israel Studies chair and a Jewish Studies professor who specialized in Jewish studies. In addition to concentrating in International Relations at James Madison College, a liberal arts residential college at MSU, I also specialized in the Jewish Studies Program.

In the past couple weeks the Religious Studies department has announced that Prof. Benjamin Pollock will be the full time assistant professor teaching Modern Jewish Thought and a course on Judaism. (I taught these courses this past year as a visiting professor)

Additionally, Yael Aronoff, a senior associate at Columbia University’s Institute of War and Peace Studies, has been named the first Michael and Elaine Serling and Friends Israel Studies Chair at Michigan State University.

The Serling chair is a core position in MSU’s Jewish Studies Program, which is administered by the College of Arts and Letters. Aronoff will become a faculty member in James Madison College, the university’s prestigious residential college in the area of public affairs.

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

Such a JAP

From the Michigan Daily
By Whitney Dibo

The speaker’s voice resonates with a natural blend of familiarity and animosity typical of this casual observation. Her friends peer down State Street at the girl’s sorority sweat pants, UGG boots and straight brown hair. They all nod in agreement. “There are so many JAPs on this campus,” one chimes in. She emphasizes the consonants, making the word sound slightly harsher.

I tend to shrug off the JAP reference, but this day the label reverberates off the pavement and sticks to me with an uncomfortable sting. But I don’t have time to dwell on it. I am rushing back to my apartment, trying to catch a plane home for Yom Kippur. It is the Jewish Day of Atonement, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.

Trying to beat the sundown — the traditional end to any Jewish holiday, I squeeze into my middle seat on Northwest Airlines. I see a few other girls I know to be Jewish board the plane and maneuver their bags into the crowded overhead bins and start to wonder — are we the JAPs? I am a Jewish girl from the north suburbs of Chicago — does the term apply to me? And what does it mean that this stereotype has persisted so strongly on campus, even in this era of hyper political correctness?

As we take off, I have an unsettling feeling that this label is chipping away at the perception of Judaism on campus more than we readily admit. We need to separate this social stereotype from the religion itself — if Xerox can mean copy, then it’s not hard to see how JAP can mean Jewish. I hear the phrase more and more lately; it is picking up steam — and I can feel it bulldozing over the true meaning of Judaism.

For people fortunate enough to be unfamiliar with the term, JAP it is an acronym for Jewish American Princess — a term associated with affluence, homogeneity and exclusivity. The word predates black yoga pants and straightening irons. It has its roots in early immigration, as Jews found new purchasing power in their adopted country. Who better to show their parents how to spend money in this strange new land than their rapidly assimilating daughters? This trend gave rise to a distinctly negative nickname — one synonymous with materialism, entitlement and superficiality.

The stereotype originated during an era when no matter how smart or ambitious women were, they were sill considered dependent. JAP does not describe the headstrong Jewish women I know exist on campus. The term centers on deprecating sexism — but despite its detrimental overtones, very few people in the Jewish community object to its use. It’s a conventional part of campus vernacular — Jewish girls call each other JAPS, bars and restaurants are tagged as “JAPpy” — we continue to institutionalize its use and diminish our own identities. The term is used so liberally it has lost the harshness of an ethnic slur.

The Jewish calendar now reads 5766. It is one of the oldest, most influential religions in the world. To me, Judaism is about the value of family, the importance of charity and the beauty of ancient tradition. Unfortunately, many people on campus are better versed on Judaism’s social labels than its actual history. Why read the Torah when you can get the cliff notes? The actual religion is being lost behind this cloud of physical and social stereotypes.

The loss here is two-fold. For students who have not had much interaction with Jews before coming to the University, they lose incentive to learn more. Why dig deeper when the religion is neatly boxed in a tangible stereotype? And on a larger scale, we are doing a disservice to our religion by passively allowing JAP to epitomize Judaism on campus. I remember back in high school when it gradually became offensive to use the phrase “That’s so gay.” The gay/straight alliance took the initiative to actively reject the phrase — and while it took time, the student body eventually caught on. Peeling away labels and offensive language ingrained in American culture is not easy, but we are all better for trying.

What if we as Jewish women decided that Judaism is too rich in tradition and culture to be ensconced in a superficial cultural label? What if we educated people on what it means to be Jewish instead of perpetuating a stereotype? This does not mean dressing differently or hanging out at a different bar. It means stopping our own perpetuation of the JAP jargon, and in turn the non-Jewish community will likely follow suit. We can set a standard that JAP is not an acceptable description of Jewish woman and just in being open about it we can start to debunk the stereotype.

JAP is really no different than all other ethnic labels. They all serve the same purpose: to mask the individual. And this, I assure you, is everyone’s loss.

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