The Big D: Thoughts about Detroit

Two of my friends have recently announced they will be leaving Detroit. Both for better jobs elsewhere — in bigger, more desirable cities. One is originally from suburban Detroit and one is a transplant from the East Coast. One is a single, gay, observant Jewish man who seemed to have singlehandedly changed the narrative about homosexuality in the Jewish community. The other is a rabbi who started a family here in Detroit and left an indelible mark on the Jewish teen community who found him to be a charming, honest, creative and funny young teacher with a heart of gold. This is what we refer to as the brain drain — talented young Jewish professionals leaving Detroit.

The downsizing of the Detroit Jewish community along with the decreased housing rates, the mass unemployment, the auto industry’s woes, and the negative NBC documentary about the City of Detroit by ex-pat Chris Hansen. But other events have left me thinking more positively about Detroit and the future of our community.

JET Theatre – Palmer Park
Intermarriage
Conversation After
T’chiyah – some still live and work in city
Parents

JServe
Greening of Detroit
Downtown Synagogue
Lofts

Come Play Detroit

Backstage Pass

Israel Trip – D on shirts

The Jewish Zen of Steve Jobs

For many years I’ve been writing and speaking about the impact of technology on Jewish life. In 1995 I had the idea to use email (it was still fairly new at the time) to ask random people around the world to wish my brother congratulations on his upcoming bar mitzvah. The response was overwhelming and it got me thinking about the power of the Internet and how it would make the Jewish world smaller. So, as an International Relations major I titled my college thesis “The Globalization of Judaism: How the Internet has Heightened Jewish Religion, Cultural Awareness, and Education on a Global Scale” and tried to predict how technological innovation would change the global Jewish community.

Steve Jobs, a Zen Buddhist follower, is largely responsible for the way we have plugged in to new technology and communication devices. His contributions to technological innovation have indirectly altered Jewish life for the better. We are a more interconnected, organized, and educated people thanks to the genius of Steve Jobs. Like millions of others, when I heard that Steve Jobs had succumbed to Pancreatic Cancer yesterday evening, I immediately began to think about all the ways I’ve used the Apple products that have his visionary imprint on them. While I’ve always favored PCs above Apple computers, I have had my share of Apple products — from Mac desktops to iPods. The role of Steve Jobs at Apple always had less to do with the technology side of the corporation and more to do with the business, marketing, and creative aspects.

Ami Eden, the editor of JTA, asked me to write a reflection of Steve Jobs from a Jewish perspective. At first, I wasn’t sure I was up to the task because Steve Jobs wasn’t Jewish and I couldn’t think what was “Jewish” about his role at Apple. Ultimately, I realized that his contributions to technology have made the world a better place and that embodies the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam – improving our world. A genius like Steve Jobs is unique. His revolutionary work will be felt for generations. Here is what I wrote for JTA:

Social networking sites began buzzing immediately after word spread of the death of Apple Computer visionary Steve Jobs Wednesday evening. Rabbis took time out of their busy preparations for Yom Kippur to halt their sermon writing and post personal reflections on what the contributions of Steve Jobs’ creative spark had on them.

Rabbi Andrew Pepperstone of Dewitt, N.Y, posted to his Facebook page, “Is Steve Jobs a hero? If someone who has vision, discipline, passion, and love for what he does is a hero, then yes. It was not about the money or the fame for him. It was about changing the world in a million little ways that improved peoples’ lives. And his devices and other inventions have been a major breakthrough in helping people with disabilities communicate and employ the best that technology has to offer.” Earlier on Facebook, Pepperstone recounted the plethora of Apple computers and gadgets he had used since his first Apple IIe in 1984.

Answering the question “Why Is Steve Jobs Important to Me?” Rabbi Eric Linder of Omaha explained how Jobs impacted his professional life. On his blog Linder wrote, “In my rabbinate, I have tried to use technology to make Judaism relevant. For Rosh Hashanah we leveraged the power of social media to crowd source answers to the question, ‘What does the shofar call YOU to do?’ All of the technical stuff was done on Apple technology. And the project brought the congregation closer together. It brought people together.”

Over the past three decades, the technological innovation that was inspired by Steve Jobs’ vision had a significant effect on the Jewish community. His genius was in intuiting what would happen when you “strip away the excess layers of business, design, and innovation until only the simple elegant reality remained.” The ways in which Jewish education and Jewish life have been positively affected by the products that Steve Jobs dreamed of and made into a reality are countless. His iPods made Jewish music and Jewish learning more accessible. His computers brought graphic design to new levels for Jewish institutions like synagogues and day schools. His Facetime application on the iPhone allowed Jewish communities separated by continents to come together and communicate. The geographical distances and borders have become irrelevant thanks to the innovative contributions of this genius. The thousands of Jewish themed applications from utilities to resources to games were created specifically for the iPhone and iPad.

Steve Jobs’ understanding of efficiency and connectivity led to the intuitive devices that have changed the way we work and connect with each other. The Jewish high school that has its students learning Talmud and chemistry on the iPad owes a great deal to the work of Steve Jobs. The father who created a slideshow of memories set to music using iMovie for his daughter’s wedding is indebted to the vision of Steve Jobs. The young boy living in a remote area of the country who is preparing for his bar mitzvah by listening to a New York cantor’s podcast on his iTouch is grateful to Steve Jobs.

Did the devotee of Zen Buddhism have a Jewish spark in him? Perhaps he did. There is no doubt that Steve Jobs had a profound effect on the Jewish world. His dynamic legacy will continues to make the world better as we continue to plug in and connect with each other in just the way he envisioned and using the devices he helped design. If the value of Tikkun Olam really means leaving your imprint on the world in a quest to make it a better place for all of us, then Steve Jobs possessed that value a thousand-fold.

May the memory of Steve Jobs be for blessings and may his family be comforted during this difficult time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s native Detroiter Rabbi Bookstein’s article:

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

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

The crowd roared back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Jewish Identity

I was one of three Jewish educators asked to respond to a statement about Jewish identity for this month’s issue of Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility. The statement was co-written by Patrick Aleph and Michael Sabani, the co-founders of Punk Torah. After I responded to their statement in writing, Patrick and Michael interviewed me via Skype. Their statement, my response and the video interview are below:

“If I try to be like him, who will be like me?” (Yiddish Proverb)

No study has ever been done to discover the root cause of why people stop identifying with Judaism. If we worry less about Judaism as a culture and more about monotheism, we might find that — suddenly — people have something more to believe in. Jewish identity is more than matzah ball soup and Young Professionals mixers.

God, Israel (the people), and the Torah are essential for Jewish identity. Without God, we sit on a stool with only two legs. Theists need to summon up the courage to put God first in Jewish life in spite of the urge to keep our heads down so we don’t look crazy.

We often place a lot of importance on not standing out, especially in a “tribal” sense. It gives us a sense of being a part of something larger than ourselves. The flip side is that if we all try to be like someone else, we lose who we really are.

Judaism is a path (halakhah) that allows us to walk together, even if we walk at our own pace. When we try to be like another, we are giving up our God-given individuality.

—Patrick Aleph and Michael Sabani

My response: 
Jewish identity is a tricky subject. We have no consensus on how to define it, what it should feel like, or to what extent it should be particularistic. I find that Judaism has much wisdom to offer, both to adherents of the faith and to the rest of the world. I’m often, therefore, baffled by our numbers — that we account for such a small fraction of the population.

Should we worry more about monotheism, as Michael Sabani and Patrick Aleph suggest? Should we worry less about the cultural components of our peoplehood? These are decisions that each individual “member of the tribe” must make. Some Jews will be enthralled with bagels and lox on Sunday mornings, federation meetings, Seinfeld reruns, and B’nai Brith softball. Other Jews will recharge their spiritual batteries in traditional synagogue life. Some will look to Jewish summer camp as their source of Jewishness, and for other people it will be the connection to the State of Israel. We are a club, but we’re not sure who is included and who decides our boundaries. It is good for us to stand out as tribally different, but we should also count our blessings that we are included in the larger fabric as well.

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

Making Your Website Work for Your Synagogue or Jewish Organization

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


Quite often I get asked to consult synagogues on their Web presence. The first thing I do is take a look at their current Web site and try to determine in which year it was created. I can usually tell its production date within a few years based on several factors. I then explain what a Web site should do today. After I explain its function, I let them know that the look of the site matters less today than its functionality. Today’s Web site needs to be an extension of the community the synagogue is trying to create (or in some cases, has already created).

If someone’s trying to find your synagogue’s location, they can use Google Maps. But if they want to interact with the rabbi about last week’s sermon, or find out who else is attending a class, or make a contribution online, or update their membership record (see: Chaverweb), then they will need to access the synagogue Web site.
In a brilliant article, Beth Frank Backman explains the need for today’s Web sites to facilitate community building. It should be required reading for every synagogue and rabbi interested in making social media and the other technology of today work for them in their mission.
Here is her article and I can only hope it’s prescriptions are followed. All emphasis in boldface is mine.
Does Your Website Push Information or Facilitate Community Building?
By Beth Frank Backman
Social media is much more than technology. It challenges us to rethink the nature and purpose of organizations and the reasons why we meet face to face. In doing so it will eventually force us to rethink the nature and role of the synagogue.
Will the synagogue of the future continue to be a coordination hub for Jewish education, bar and bat mitzvah preparation, Jewish identity activities, and prayer? Or will most of these functions move elsewhere, making the synagogue little more that a “meet-up” for ritually required prayer and life cycle events? Will it even be needed for those purposes?
In the future, even Hebrew school and bar/bat mitzvahs may no longer be a driving force in synagogue membership. Why cart kids half way across town to go to Hebrew school if the same learning can be had one-on-one via Skype? Imagine a world where bar and bat mitzvah tutors from Israel, Venezuela, San Diego and New York can be found in an on-line directory and are only a Skype call away. Imagine a world where one can find on the web free lance rabbis and cantors to lead private Shachrit and Mincha services in the Catskills, Rockies or Israel.
Imagine a world where kids form Jewish identity via summer camp and on-line networking with their camp friends throughout the year. Imagine a world where Jewish kids across the city keep in touch via Twitter and meet up at the movie theater or mall on Saturday night. What then happens to the traditional synagogue youth group? Why pay exorbitant synagogue dues just for Hebrew school training or the opportunity to participate in a youth group?
Much depends on how quickly synagogues see the opportunities of social media and incorporate them into their mission. Social media is allowing the traditional functions of the synagogue to be deconstructed and moved out of the synagogue. Many of these “imagined” services are already here and are beginning to generate loyalty.
This presents severe challenges for synagogues. The upcoming generation of 20 somethings sees on-line and off-line relationships as complements of each other.They expect communities where on and off line life create synergy with one another. Technology is fundamentally social and creates the infrastructure needed to maintain social relationships.
The current membership of many synagogues grew up in a world where real community is face to face. Technology is little more than a tool for delivering information. As a result of these differences, it sometimes hard for current membership to understand the need for a new type of on-line presence. When budgets are short there is little incentive to create a website for the Jewish community who has not yet shown up in the synagogue door. But if nothing is done, it is quite possible that the 20-something crowd may never show up.
Despite the challenges, at first glance it looks like synagogues are beginning to bite into social media. According to a study released by Jvillage Network, 66% of synagogues responding had a Facebook page. But a closer look at the data paints a very different picture.
Social media is much more than Facebook and Twitter. Even these classic social media tools can be used in ways that essentially ignore social media. Rather social media is an approach to technology that sees technology primarily as a way to create rich personalized two-way and multi-way connections criss-crossing a group of people.
To really grasp how a synagogue understands and uses social media we need to dig deeper and look at how and what kind of information is being shared on a website, Facebook page or twitter account. How does it build relationships? Is the information being pushed outward at people or are there genuine and personalized exchanges that create strong social bonds between members? When we look at how these tools are used, it is clear that synagogues have barely caught onto the idea of social media:
  • It appears that none of the synagogues surveyed had primarily community generated content and only 21% have blogs where community members can comment. In general, website updates are centralized in the hands of staff people or a dedicated volunteer. Content is being pushed from the synagogue to the members and occasionally from member to synagogue, but almost never from member to member.

  • Furthermore content pushed from the synagogue to members tends to be impersonal. While 49% of congregations updated their website with Jewish themed content and most had synagogue calendars, only 7% let members view their membership balances on line and only 4% use their website to help parents monitor their child’s progress in Hebrew school.

  • Personalized information moving from member to congregation tends to be limited to administrative matters: membership application, Hebrew school registration, RSVPs and payment for synagogue events. Even then less than 30% of congregations had one or more of those services. Only 14% had volunteer sign-up tools and only 2% could make changes to their membership accounts.

  • The impersonal nature of the websites is further underscored by the limited opportunities that members have to personalize their interaction with the website. Only 3% provide members a customized home page. Only 14% let users download the synagogue calendar into their personal calendars. 40% lack search functions making it impossible for users to go directly to the content most important to them.

  • Even support of off-line community building is weak. Only 15% provided their membership directory on line. Only 3% stream religious services for house-bound community members.

  • On the other hand, 40% accept on line donations. One has to wonder what message is being sent to members when donation features are more prevalent than features that support personalized member to synagogue communication.

  • The sense that websites are being primarily used to push information to members rather than to facilitate community building is also reinforced by an apparent lack of interest in even passive sources of community feedback such as website analytics. 66% of synagogues either are not or do not know how to use analytic tools to monitor website usage.
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Tweeting the Flotilla Attack

Cross-posted at Jewish Techs

Peter Beinart’s essay “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” in The New York Review of Books argues that most of the mainstream American Jewish organizations have abandoned liberalism on the issues of the Middle East and are responsible for a generation of young Jews who hold no connection to Israel. He writes, “not only does the organized American Jewish community mostly avoid public criticism of the Israeli government, it tries to prevent others from leveling such criticism as well. In recent years, American Jewish organizations have waged a campaign to discredit the world’s most respected international human rights groups.”

Beinhart’s essay has of course drawn much criticism and debate within the American Jewish world, both from the right and the left.

Perhaps the best way to see the divide in the American Jewish community over Israel is to look at the dissemination of information and the debate on the Web today following the IDF raid of the Mavi Marmara and other ships in a flotilla traveling to Gaza.

Here’s what happened today: American Jews woke up this morning — a vacation day from work and school in commemoration of Memorial Day in the U.S. — to learn that Israeli commandos raided a Gaza aid flotilla, killing nine and injuring dozens of others. Since American Jews didn’t head to work this morning, there was no water cooler at which to debate the issues. Did the Israelis act in self-defense? Who struck first? Was the flotilla carrying humanitarian aid workers or political demonstrators? Did the men on the flotilla have guns and knives or was it a peaceful transport to Gaza? Were the IDF soldiers stabbed and beaten when they boarded the ship? Did the crew of the Gaza flotilla try to lynch the Israeli soldiers?

So, with no water cooler by which to stand, no office coffee to share, and no bus on which to commute, American Jews took the debate to Twitter. On the social media site users tweeted their latest discoveries from their choice online news networks. With links from Fox news, the Jerusalem Post, the New York Times, etc., Twitter users included hashtags featuring the newly popular term “flotilla” — from the Spanish, meaning a small fleet of ships — and voiced their opinion on the controversial event. Some pro-Israel tweets included the hashtag #freedomflotilla with the word “not” included parenthetically.

Some users of the microblogging service complained that Twitter apparently censored the #flotilla hashtag in discussions about the convoy deaths. Charles Arthur at the Guardian explained that Twitter didn’t censor the #flotilla hashtag. Rather, as #flotilla began trending, users started using the #freedomflotilla hashtag in its place. Also, as Mike Butcher at Techcrunch points out: “This surely was a case of anti-spam filtering [as] there had already been a “flotilla” story in the past week – the anniversary of Dunkirk (for non-Britons: a dramatic rescue during the second world war of British and French troops from the Dunkirk beaches by small craft). And Gaza is frequently topical. So Twitter’s anti-spam algorithms – that is, the machines – likely decided that this was a spam attack trying to piggyback on old hashtags, and pushed the “#flotilla” hashtag out of the trending topics.

In addition to Twitter, YouTube also figured as a prominent player in today’s Flotilla debates. Tweets sent readers to the YouTube site to view videos from both sides of the attack — there was footage taken by the Israel Defense Forces of the  Mavi Marmara Passengers Attacking IDF Soldiers as well as video footage from Al Jazeera of  Israeli troops storming the Gaza flotilla after the white flag was raised.

On this lazy Memorial Day Monday morning in the U.S., Americans had no where else to go other than the Web with their views on the situation in the Middle East. Perhaps this virtual debate over the flotilla attack is the best litmus test for Beinhart’s assertion of how American Jews connect (or don’t) with Israel.

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

What Elena Kagan Can Teach Us About Judaism

If Elena Kagan, President Barack Obama’s choice to fill the open seat on the Supreme Court, is confirmed there will be two Jewish female justices on the highest court in the U.S. and a full third of the bench will be Jewish for the first time in history. The rest of the justices are Catholic. A Supreme Court made up of six Catholics and three Jews will certainly be interesting.

But there is also a lot that the biography of Elena Kagan can teach us about Judaism today.

In a recent article in the NY Times, we learn that Kagan had the first bat mitzvah ceremony at Lincoln Square Synagogue, an Orthodox congregation on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. But what led up to that event, and Kagan’s Jewish identity in the decades since that event, shed much light on the post-denominational Jewish world of today and perhaps give us a glimpse of what is possible in the future.

Lincoln Square Synagogue started with a few Conservative Jewish families in the Lincoln Towers apartment complex in NYC. In 1964, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin was sent by Yeshiva University to lead High Holy Day services for this group (essentially a “chavurah.”) They took a liking to Rav Riskin, dropped the “Conservative” label from their name, and in 1970 formed Lincoln Square Synagogue.

The Times article goes on to explain that a women’s prayer group began at the synagogue in 1972 and when Elena Kagan was approaching her twelfth birthday, she requested to have a formal bat mitzvah. It would become the first bat mitzvah that Rabbi Riskin would officiate.

“We crafted a lovely service, but I don’t think I satisfied her completely,” said Rabbi Riskin, who left the synagogue in 1983 to move to Israel, where he is chief rabbi of Efrat, a West Bank settlement. “But she certainly raised my consciousness.”

Since then, bat mitzvahs have evolved at Lincoln Square. Today a girl can choose to lead the service and read from the Torah, as long as the ceremony is held during a women’s service in an annex of the synagogue. There cannot be more than nine men in attendance, and they must sit behind the mechitza. (“If there are 10 men” — known as a minyan — “that becomes a men’s service,” said Cantor Sherwood Goffin, who taught Ms. Kagan.)

Elena Kagan’s parents eventually left Lincoln Square Synagogue and joined West End Synagogue (now located next door to Lincoln Square), a Reconstructionist congregation. Today, Elena Kagan considers herself a Conservative Jew.

This means that the woman who is likely to soon be the newest Supreme Court justice was a member of an Orthodox synagogue that began as a Conservative “chavurah” with an Orthodox-trained rabbi who was willing to have women’s prayer groups, a glass see-through mechitzah (barrier between men and women), and organize a bat mitzvah ceremony at a time when most Conservative rabbis weren’t willing to do so. And from that synagogue, her family became Reconstructionists, and she eventually became Conservative (in her Jewish ideology, but not her political or judicial approach).

Modern American Judaism is at a cross-roads. It has become much more difficult to determine what it means to be a Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, or Orthodox Jew. On the one hand Orthodoxy has moved further away from center with increased strictures on everything from dietary laws to issues of family purity. But on the other hand, Orthodox rabbis like Riskin, Avi Weiss, Yitz Greenberg, Saul Berman, Dov Linzer, and Asher Lopatin (to name a few) are embracing an “open Orthodoxy” that sees challenging questions of Jewish law through a modern lens and allows for increased participation of women in the community.

Reform Judaism has moved quite far in the past half-century and many Reform Jews have found it possible to cling to traditional Judaism within a Reform setting. Conservative Judaism has shifted from a post-war period in which Jews had the Tradition but were in search of modernity and change. Today, Conservative Jews begin with secularism and are in search of Tradition (or at least their rabbis see the situation that way).

Elena Kagan’s emergence on the national scene should demonstrate the fluidity that exists in our Jewish world. We have become a community less about denominational structure and more about comfort. I write this from Israel where I spent this past Shabbat at Shira Chadasha, a congregation that calls itself Orthodox, but allows for a great deal of liturgical participation by women. At Shira Chadasha, one immediately gets the sense that many of the Jewsthere are post-denominational in the sense that they don’t worry about which camp or category they fit into. Rather, they are comfortable being a part of that community, whatever it’s called.

Thanks to the nomination of Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court, our American Jewish community can learn a little more about the direction in which we’re headed.

(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

Denominational Judaism is SO Last Century

I am often asked the question: “What kind of rabbi are you?” My tongue firmly planted in my cheek, I usually answer: “A good one!”

Of course, the questioner is trying to ascertain in which denomination of Judaism I affiliate and will then make a whole host of assumptions about me. Denominational labels, whether for rabbis or lay people, are thought to reveal such things as congregational affiliation, personal theology, daily practice, views on Israel, the role of women in Judaism, etc. However, we are now in a post-denominational age of modern Judaism and denominational labels have been rendered useless.

We are in a time when Jewish people identify their religion in their Facebook profile as “Recon-newel-ortho-conserva-form.” No, these people aren’t confused about their Jewish identity, rather they have realized that there is “meaning” to be made from the various pathways to Torah.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, when asked about the different streams of Judaism, remarked that this is the reason that Baskin Robbins offers thirty-one flavors of ice cream. And to this I would add that it’s possible to order a mixture of flavors too. Yitz Greenberg also famously said, “I personally don’t care which denomination in Judaism you belong to as long as you’re ashamed of it.”

To those who ask what type of rabbi I am, perhaps a better response would be an invitation to sit and shmooze over coffee so that I may share my narrative. I was raised in the Conservative Movement attending Shabbat services, going to the synagogue pre-school, and studying at a Solomon Schechter Day School from kindergarten through the end of the seventh grade. In high school, I was active in the Conservative Movement’s youth group, and traveled across the country and to Israel with other Conservative Jewish teens.

When I decided to become a rabbi during my second year of college, there was never a doubt that it would be at the Jewish Theological Seminary in NYC, known as the flagship educational institution of the Conservative Movement. It was in rabbinical school, however, that I really came into contact with other “flavors” of Judaism.

I was chosen for an interfaith dialogue program called Seminarians Interacting. We went on a week-long retreat and stayed at a Catholic seminary outside of Baltimore. I learned a bit about other faith traditions, but it was sharing a room with a Reform rabbinical student and talking to Reconstructionist rabbinical students that was the most eye-opening experience for me. We talked about our individual calling to become a rabbi, matters of belief and practice, and the future of the Jewish community.

Not long after this experience, I returned to the Detroit area to spend a summer training as a hospital chaplain. There were Christian seminary students representing different denominations, but I spent the most time with a Reform rabbinical student who also attended that Conservative Jewish day school. We studied Torah together, prayed together, and debated Jewish law. It was wonderful. We each had our own “torah” to teach and we were both deeply engaged in learning from our rabbis, but we also gained so much from each other.

It was also in rabbinical school that I become involved with Clal, a pluralistic organization that employs teaching fellows from every Jewish stream. In the Clal offices I found Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Orthodox scholars who were so deeply engrossed in discussing the issues of the day. It didn’t matter where they prayed or how they thought the Torah was revealed to the Jewish people; all that mattered was that they could challenge each other to think outside of the box and help people make meaning out of their lives.

Rabbinical School was a time when I prayed at an Orthodox shul in which men and women sat separately. But I also led a very Reform service on Friday nights for a nice group of thirty elderly people at the local nursing home. All the while spending my days studying Torah and Talmud in a Conservative seminary with professors who had all studied under Mordechai Kaplan, the founding father of Reconstructionist Judaism.

After graduating from rabbinical school and becoming a card-carrying Conservative rabbi, I took a job at a Hillel foundation on a college campus. There, my job was to advise the leaders of the various student minyans, from Reform and Conservative to Humanistic and Traditional. I spent time in each of these different prayer groups and noticed that many students sampled the various offerings regardless of their upbringing or their family’s affiliation. During this time, I also consulted a Conservative synagogue that didn’t have a rabbi and taught adult education classes at a Reform temple.

Today, I serve as the rabbi of a non-denominational camping agency in which I help run Shabbat services at our summer camp. The services tend more toward the Reform liturgy. I also serve as the part-time rabbi of a Reconstructionist congregation, and as the director of a consolidated, weekly high school program for the Conservative synagogues. I am part of two national rabbinic fellowship programs in which I learn and dialogue with rabbis from just about every Jewish flavor imaginable. When we come together at retreats, we forget at which institution we were each made into rabbis and just allow our Torah to permeate the room so that we may learn from each other.

Whether with my colleagues at the STAR Foundation’s PEER program or at Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders, I’ve learned that if we perpetuate the arguments of whose Torah is true Judaism, we’ll only do damage to the Jewish people. When we recognize that the labels don’t help and that we’re living in a post-denominational world we will be able to bring more of our collective Jewish wisdom to the world.

I may find that my theology resonates the most with what has historically been considered a Conservative approach, but I still like to pray in an Orthodox minyan at times. The strong emphasis on social action in the Reform Movement motivates me to see the world beyond my nose and my responsibility to humanity. But the deep-rooted sense of a heimish community in the Orthodox world is something that I find gratifying and reaffirming. And the focus on egalitarianism and human dignity that has been critical to the Reconstructionist Movement since its inception is important to me.

Conservative Jews are keeping Orthodox yeshivahs open with their generous philanthropy. Reform Jews are showing their strong support for Israel by becoming AIPAC leaders, traveling to Israel on solidarity missions, and planning community events to honor Israel — all actions to which their Reform forebears would object. Orthodox synagogues are finding innovative ways to increase the role of women in the prayer service and in the community. And independent minyanim are forming around the country with no denominational affiliation and made up of young people who were raised in different traditions.

So, the next time someone asks me what kind of rabbi I am, I think I’ll just ask them: “Well, how much time do you have?”

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

Our Tweeter in Washington

Cross-posted to Jewish Techs

Much has already been made of the social media posting habits of William Daroff. Whether on Twitter or Facebook, the well-connected director of the Washington Office of The Jewish Federations of North America (and its VP for Public Policy) isn’t afraid to go public with his whereabouts, upcoming speaking engagements, or even his drinking buddies.

Earlier this month, the JTA’s Ron Kampeas dubbed Daroff “The Fastest Tweet in the Jewish Organizational World” and the Fundermentalist (AKA Jacob Berkman) tweeted about Daroff that “the JFNA’s crackberry head has a serious case of the twitters.”

Some in the Jewish Federation network may think that this Washington insider tweets too much, but others appreciate the bird’s eye view that Daroff provides. His embrace of social media and lack of restraint when it comes to providing his daily schedule may lead to more transparency in the Jewish communal world.

Keeping up with Mr. Daroff’s professional life — knowing which D.C. movers and shakers he’s wining and dining, and which cities are on his travel itinerary — is a glimpse into the life of a Federation executive that most never had. Letting the world (or at least anyone who follows the @daroff feed on Twitter) know when he’s in a meeting with Israeli leaders on Capitol Hill or at the White House Hanukkah party removes much of the guessing game about the Jewish community’s political access in Washington.

Of course, it’s easy to take the tell-all nature of Twitter too far. There have been times when Daroff’s Blackberry tapping fingers took him into TMI territory.

A friend of mine, who’s a Jewish communal professional, found himself drinking Scotch with Daroff at the hotel lobby bar at this year’s Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) conference. (Single Malt Scotch is certainly one of Daroff’s own trending topics on his Twitter feed.) Before the first sip, the list of imbibers was tweeted around the Internet. Back at the office following the conference, a few eyebrows were raised following Daroff’s tweet and my friend had to explain to his colleagues that the bar tab wasn’t paid for with agency funds.

Adam Kredo, writing in the Washington Jewish Week, also noted the gray area in which Daroff navigates when he Tweets his opinion. This past Fall, Daroff tweeted that the left-leaning Israel group J-Street “stands with the Mullahs and the hard left at NIAC [National Iranian Action Council]” who are “opposed to sanctioning Iran.” That tweet might have gotten Daroff in some hot water, but as he aptly put it, “I have a cool job and get into cool places. You shouldn’t have to buy me a scotch in order to hear what I’m up to, and Twitter allows for that.”

Web 2.0, in addition to opening doors into new media, has also forced us to raise questions about the dissemination of professional and personal information. Is it appropriate for Jewish communal non-profit executives to divulge what they do when the workshops and plenary sessions come to an end at professional conferences? Is it unseemly for Jewish communal executives to fire off quick missives from their Blackberry before their communication department has a chance to review them? Is it wise for leaders of Jewish organizations, rabbis, day school heads, or foundation leaders to keep us up to date in 140 characters or less? Will social media help us gain a better perspective of what our Jewish communal leaders do on an average day?

My own sense is that William Daroff’s “tweeps” do in fact appreciate his candor. And with over 2,500 Twitter followers and about the same number of Facebook “friends,” he’s built quite an audience. Perhaps if more Jewish leaders follow Daroff’s lead and aren’t afraid to share their activities (and ideas) with the community-at-large, there will be more young Jews eager to connect to the organized Jewish community.

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