Academics College Community Detroit Hillel Jewish Michigan Teens

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 | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Detroit Food Holidays Humor Jewish Kosher Michigan Passover

Kosher for Passover Zingerman’s Challah?

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the signs at Balducci’s, a New York grocery store, that advertised their ham as “Delicious for Chanukah.”

Today’s issue of the Detroit Jewish News features a full-page ad for the local Plum Market chains of grocery stores. In large print, the ad proclaims Plum Market as “Your Passover Destination” and features a challah (Jewish egg bread) from Zingerman’s Bakehouse above the words “We stock a full line of Passover products from Zingerman’s Bakehouse.” (Thanks to Rabbi Rachel Shere, of Adat Shalom Synagogue, for bringing the ad to my attention.)

First, Zingerman’s, based in Ann Arbor, is not a kosher establishment. Second, their products are not kosher for Passover.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Detroit Jewish JTS Michigan Politics Reconstructionist Judaism

Honorable Menschen: Michigan’s Levin Brothers

While living in New Jersey during rabbinical school, I attended a benefit dinner for the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in which Senator Jon Corzine was honored.  Prior to the event, questions were raised as to whether it was wise of JTS to honor a politician while he was serving in office. Honoring Corzine, the former Goldman Sachs Chairman and who after serving as senator became the governor of New Jersey, would bring in a lot of contributions to JTS, but it also upset several donors who saw this as the Seminary engaging in partisan politics.

Now the local region of the Seminary here in Michigan is honoring not one, but two politicians. And yet, there won’t be any objection to this event because of the reputations of the politicians who will be honored. In the Detroit Jewish community, Carl and Sandy Levin have earned their “Favorite Sons” status over a combined sixty-plus years in elected office. The Jewish Theological Seminary will honor the Levin brothers at a brunch on Sunday, April 18, 2010.

The Levin Brothers are making big news today, following yesterday’s decision of House Democrats to make Sandy Levin acting chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Today’s Detroit Free Press reports that Sandy’s “ascension, taken with his younger brother Carl’s chairmanship of the Senate Armed Services Committee, creates what the Christian Science Monitor called ‘one of the most powerful brother acts in Washington since the Kennedys.’ The Office of the House Historian said there have been four instances of brothers serving as chairs of congressional committees at the same time but none since 1881. And there is no precedent for brothers chairing committees as powerful and prestigious as those headed by the Levins.”

A few months ago, PBS aired a documentary about the history of Jewish Detroit in which Sandy and Carl Levin were interviewed together about their beloved neighborhood in the City of Detroit. Their interview was a touching tribute to their upbringing and the city they love. Many described the scene not as two elected officials being interviewed by a documentary filmmaker, but as a couple of local Jewish grandfathers waxing nostalgic about their childhood and the old neighborhood.

I first got a sense of Carl Levin’s character when a good friend of mine worked on his re-election campaign as a fundraiser. I would hear her tell people that she works “with Carl” as opposed to “for Senator Levin.” However, that is precisely what the laid back senator wanted his staff to say. While he’s served in the Senate since 1979, there’s no ego there. Both Carl and Sandy are humble, well-respected men who can be aptly characterized by the term “mensch.” I’ve met both men on several occasions and have found them to be warm and friendly, without a hint of that “Inside-the-Beltway Braggadocio.”

Most people don’t know that in addition to all of his accolades and accomplishments in the Senate, Carl Levin also founded a synagogue. A February 11, 1977 article in the Detroit Jewish News reports that when the former synagogue building of Congregation Mogain Abraham in Detroit was about to be demolished, Carl Levin (Detroit Common Council President at the time) and three others salvaged relics from the 63-year-old building to be incorporated in the new synagogue they formed called Congregation T’chiyah. “When Levin became aware that the former synagogue of Mogain Abraham (now Mt. Olive Baptist Church) was to be demolished as part of the Medical Center Rehabilitation Project, he proposed that the group make a bid to the city, which had purchased the structure, for the interior fixtures… the bid was accepted.”

Years later, Carl Levin was walking in Detroit when he saw a pickup truck drive by with a stained-glass window in the back. He immediately recognized it as one of the windows from the synagogue, which was now a church. Even though, Congregation T’chiyah technically owned that stained-glass window, which had apparently been stolen out of the church, Carl stopped the truck and bought the stained-glass window from the man right there on the spot.

Today, I’m proud to be the part-time rabbi of Congregation T’chiyah; probably the only synagogue in the country to be founded by a U.S. Senator. I’m also honored that Sandy Levin’s family is active in the congregation, continuing the Levin legacy at Congregation T’chiyah that began over thirty-three years ago. I’ll be among the many who will come together next month to honor Sandy and Carl Levin, and to support the Jewish Theological Seminary.

With many politicians today, people seem to just be waiting for a scandal to occur. That is not the case with the Levin Brothers. Through their integrity and decades of hard work, they have actually made strides to give politics a good name.  They are just two nice Jewish boys from Detroit who earned law degrees and set out to make a difference by legislating in Washington in a non-politics-as-usual way.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Detroit Food Humor Jewish Kosher Michigan

Kosher Chicken at Costco

Costco has been working hard to appeal to the Kosher consumer. A few Costco locations in Michigan have begun selling refrigerated kosher beef produced by Colorado Kosher.

I was at one Costco location today in Michigan and was surprised to see free samples of Kosher chicken being offered. Of course, the chicken was being cooked on the same grill that had been used for non-kosher food samples on a previous day (and is therefore no longer kosher), but it’s the thought that counts.

I love that the woman distributing the samples (her name is Penny) told me that this kosher chicken is an excellent way to keep my family kosher during this Lenten season. Here’s the video of Penny, Costco’s Kosher Chicken “Spokesperson”:

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Conservative Judaism Detroit Israel Michigan Obituary Rabbi

Rabbi Efry Spectre

Even as a child I felt very comfortable in my family’s synagogue. I went to nursery school in the lower level of Adat Shalom Synagogue and would attend Shabbat services with my grandfather each Saturday morning. I looked up to the rabbi and the cantor of the synagogue, and considered them to be my mentors over the past three decades. After all, they knew me as a four-year-old tot and they knew me as a rabbi. They just always seemed to be a part of my life.

And then Cantor Larry Vieder passed away in October 2008 succumbing to Pancreatic Cancer. A part of the congregation seemed to die with him. Even in his retirement, he was a staple of Adat Shalom attending the weekday and Sabbath prayer services as often as he could. The other day, his long-time partner on the pulpit, Rabbi Efry Spectre, died in his Manhattan apartment where he had retired after leading Adat Shalom for 22 years.

I developed a nice relationship with Rabbi Spectre, as can be expected since I spent a lot of time around the synagogue — Saturday mornings with my grandfather, Hebrew High School classes, youth group activities, and working in the mail room for several years. He was my teacher in the classroom, and outside of the classroom too. In college, he encouraged me to work as a counselor at Camp Ramah before applying to rabbinical school. (He even called the camp director and told him to hire me.) He stood next to me at my bar mitzvah and officiated at my wedding a decade later. In between he spoke eloquently at my beloved grandfather’s funeral, choosing just the right words to bring comfort to my grandmother and our family.

But I really got to know Rabbi Spectre after he left Adat Shalom. A couple months after my wedding, he moved to NYC as part of a sabbatical that would lead directly into his retirement. He began teaching a course in homiletics (sermon delivery) at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where I was studying to become a rabbi. We enjoyed many lunches together in the cafeteria (with Cantor Vieder too when he came to town for meetings), and on several occasions he took my wife and I to dinner at different Kosher restaurants in Manhattan.

I recall one Saturday afternoon when he joined us for lunch at our small Upper West Side apartment. After lunch and nice conversation, I remembered that someone taught me how Maimonides always escorted his distinguished Sabbath guests home. I felt I should walk my rabbi back to his apartment. So, we spent the next hour walking through Riverside Park on a beautiful afternoon. I probably learned more from my teacher during that walk than I did as a 10th grade teenager in his classroom.

Little did I know that the following summer, in 2001, we’d have a lot more time together for me to learn from him. Rabbi Spectre would often ask me to come to his apartment and fix his computer (or set up his VCR, Fax machine, answering machine, etc.). He was one of the most brilliant rabbis of his generation, but when it came to electronics and computers he was a technophobe. One morning before heading to the gym, I came to his apartment to install some new software on his computer. I left my gym bag on the floor by his dining room table. While I was working on his computer, he went to get something from the other room tripping over the shoulder strap of the gym bag. He went flying to the ground and broke both shoulders. I called 9-1-1, rode with him to the hospital in the ambulance, and spent the next month at his bedside. A single man with no children, he depended on me and I felt honored to help. The experience had its “Tuesdays with Morrie” moments, but I also felt guilty that it was my gym bag that put him in the hospital (and later a rehab center). Thankfully, he recovered from the injury and didn’t seem to hold it against me.

Throughout the remaining years of rabbinical school and into my career, I continued to call upon Rabbi Spectre for his insight. He was a wonderful source of knowledge and advice on a vast array of subjects. He navigated the pulpit rabbinate better than most rabbis, always seeming to be there for his congregants and still finding time to visit Israel over fifty times.

I was honored to write his obituary for the Detroit Jewish News this week. I quoted his colleagues, past congregational presidents, and his friends. They all emphasized the same qualities about Rabbi Spectre: He was an unwavering Zionist, a champion for the cause of freedom for Soviet Jewry, rigid in his observance of Jewish law, and highly regarded among other rabbis throughout the world. Many spoke of his artistic talents as a renown playwright and singer. He loved going to the theater, whether he was in New York, London, or Israel. He skillfully translated musicals into Hebrew to be performed at Camp Ramah.

Locally in Detroit, he was a trusted spokesman for Jewish concerns and an ardent supporter of the Jewish day school. Rabbi Daniel Nevins worked alongside Rabbi Spectre as his assistant rabbi. He told me, “He came to Adat Shalom at a time of deep crisis and, together with a group of lay leaders and gifted professionals, he helped the synagogue become a vibrant Jewish center. He was extremely perceptive, and few rabbis could match his passion and eloquence, whether at a funeral or in a sermon. He encouraged me to be independent on the pulpit and in the classroom, and he supported my rabbinic development.”

As I wrote in his obituary, I will always remember my teacher as someone fond of telling witty jokes, making puns, and dancing on Simchat Torah with a broad smile on his face. I will also remember him playing a pivotal role in my formation, from a nursery school child to a rabbi in the community. He gave so much of himself to the congregation. His commitment to his people and the State of Israel was felt throughout the world.

I am proud to call myself one of Rabbi Efry Spectre’s many children. May the memories I have of my departed teacher endure for blessings.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Charity Detroit Jewish Tzedakah


I’m sure that it is not uncommon for children to find themselves involved with many of the same charitable organizations in which their parents were involved. In that vein, I have followed my mother’s lead by making JARC one of my favorite local causes.

JARC enables people with developmental disabilities to live rich, meaningful lives as respected members of the community in settings of their choice; to access a Jewish way of life; to provide support to families; and to educate and sensitize the public about people with disabilities and their value to society. For the past forty years, JARC has been successful in fulfilling this mission.

As a toddler, I grew up in a home that was walking distance from the grocery store. I have fond memories of walking to the Farmer Jack supermarket where the kind gentleman who bagged our groceries was likely the first person with developmental disabilities that I encountered. I recall being curious about him and inquiring to my mother about his condition. Returning to that same grocery store as a teenager and watching him collect the stray carts from the parking lot, I recognized what a hard worker he was. I recall thinking how wonderful it was that he was so dedicated to his job. Everyone knew him. He was a valued member of the community.

It is certainly natural when seeing a person with developmental disabilities to whisper to oneself “There but for the grace of God go I.” One thinks, It could just as easily be my child with that condition. Yet that is not the reason I have become involved with JARC. Rather, I believe we owe it to these men and women, as well as to their families. They deserve to live in a nice home, to have jobs, to be creative, to be involved in the community. JARC makes that a reality for them.

JARC began forty years ago by a group of Jewish parents concerned about the future of their children with developmental disabilities. Today, JARC is one of the nation’s largest providers of community-based Jewish residential services, serving nearly 150 adults in its group homes and various supported living arrangements.

Tonight, hundreds of JARC supporters will come together for the annual fundraiser at the Fisher Theater in Detroit. It’s become a yearly routine. The young adults will gather for dinner at a pre-glow event that demonstrates that the future of JARC’s communal support is secure. We’ll then take our seats for a moving, tear-jerking video about the important work that JARC does. We’ll then enjoy the Broadway musical “Legally Blonde.”

JARC is a “feel good” organization. It makes people feel good to know that JARC helps the men and women it serves live better lives. I have seen this first-hand. A few weeks ago on the Sukkot holiday, several dozen people served by JARC came to our home for a sukkah party. It was a wonderful experience and very important for my children to be exposed to people with developmental disabilities. It is my hope that my own children will eventually follow in my footsteps and support JARC as an active volunteer.

Last week, JARC dedicated another home in the community. But this home is different. It is the first energy-efficient, barrier-free group home in the United States. As I stood at the dedication ceremony, all I could think was “Wow!”

The article in the Detroit Free Press explained the uniqueness of this home:

The 3,200-square-foot ranch is being used as a group home by JARC, a Farmington Hills-based nonprofit that helps adults with developmental disabilities. Six women, ages 30 to 70, moved into the home on Minglewood last month, said Richard Loewenstein, chief executive officer of JARC.

The home has geothermal heat and bamboo flooring and uses recycled building materials and native plants for landscaping.

As two of the home’s residents are disabled, the home has features like wide doors and low sinks to accommodate wheelchairs. It has four bedrooms and 3 1/2 baths.

It is great to see how this important organization has grown over its first forty years. But it is even better to see how it continues to push forward for the sake of the wonderful community of men and women that it serves.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Baseball Celebrities Detroit Jewish Yom Kippur

Calling it Right

I had the wonderful opportunity this past Wednesday night to see Detroit Tigers radio broadcasting legend Ernie Harwell interviewed by Mitch Albom at the Fox Theatre in Detroit. To raise money for several local Detroit organizations that help the homeless, author, sports journalist, and radio personality Mitch Albom hosted an event to launch his new book. “An Intimate Evening with Mitch Albom and Friends” featured Anita Baker, author Dave Barry, and Ernie Harwell.

Rev_Henry_CovingtonAlbom discussed his new book “Have a Little Faith,” and dialogued with Rev. Henry Covington (pictured at left), the former drug addict and ex-con who is now the Pentecostal pastor at Pilgrim Church and the founder of the I Am My Brother’s Keeper Ministry to Detroit’s homeless, who is one of the subjects of Albom’s book. He also interviewed local Detroit rabbi Harold Loss, the spiritual leader of the mega-church-sized Temple Israel in West Bloomfield who filled in for the late Rabbi Albert Lewis, Mitch Albom’s rabbi from Cherry Hill, NJ who is featured in “Have a Little Faith” as well.

Ernie Harwell Statue at Comerica ParkFor me, the highlight of the evening was not meeting with the likes of Dave Barry and Anita Baker backstage during the pre-glow event, but rather sitting back in the audience and watching Ernie Harwell shmooze up Mitch Albom on stage. Ernie Harwell is a part of my life; much of my childhood was spent listening to Ernie Harwell’s voice as he called the Tigers games on the radio as I laid in bed on school nights.

In July, the 91-year-old Ernie Harwell was diagnosed with brain cancer. He knows he doesn’t have long to live. The Detroit Tigers honored him a couple weeks ago during a home game at Comerica Park, but he hasn’t made many public appearances lately. He wasn’t sure he could even make it to the Fox Theatre for Mitch Albom’s event, but he did. And he was amazing!

Albom, sitting on a living room sofa asked Harwell to speak about his faith and how he has come to accept the life-ending disease he now faces. He talked about finding faith as a young man and how it has helped him persevere through many challenges in his life, including his current sickness.

Mitch Albom described Ernie Harwell’s voice as being “what baseball would sound like if baseball could talk.” Albom also praised Harwell for having the patience to let the game of baseball move at its slow pace, and to allow the sounds of the game to be heard and appreciated by the radio audience. Harwell paraphrased Shakespeare by explaining “The game’s the thing.” “It can’t be rushed,” he said.

I enjoyed listening to Harwell talk about the days when baseball clubs couldn’t afford to send their radio guys on the road with the team. The play-by-play would come over a telegraph and Harwell, sitting in a broadcast studio, would call the game from the telegraph making sound effects to add some excitement. Some of the broadcast, Harwell admitted, he would make up since all he actually knew about the game were the stats coming over the telegraph machine. While waiting for the stats to come through, Harwell would make up a story, saying a dog just ran across the field or a fan fell out of the stands. Harwell also spoke nostalgically about the Tigers winning the World Series in 1968 and calling a play in which Jackie Robinson stole home plate (see the video below).

Through the several standing ovations on Wednesday night at the Fox Theatre, all I could think about was what a true mentsch Ernie Harwell is and how much he’s a part of the fabric of Detroit and of major league baseball. Long after Ernie’s left this world, I know I will still hear his voice in my head calling baseball games. He will forever be the “Voice of Tigers Baseball.”

* * *

And speaking about calling baseball games on the radio, I couldn’t believe what I heard about Mike Blowers, the former Seattle Mariner and current radio commentator for the organization. On the radio last Sunday, as Jews were in synagogue listening to the Kol Nidrei service and being released from the vows they’d make in the coming year, Blowers made a vow that something would happen in the upcoming baseball game. His prediction was reminiscent of Nostradamus.

Jeremy Moses, in a post on the blog titled “The Messiah Does Baseball Color Commentary,” writes:

You don’t believe in the Messiah? You don’t think the Apocalypse is coming? As of yesterday morning, I’ll admit that I was skeptical as well. But now, I believe it is fair to say that former Major League Baseball player, Mike Blowers, is Moshiach.

But before I prove my point, let’s look at some of the pre-conditions. According to [an article on Messianism on], the Messiah will not come on Shabbat. Good, because I believe he came on Sunday. Second, the rabbis believed the Messiah would come on the eve of Passover. Well, Sunday was Erev Yom Kippur, so I think it’s fair to say that the rabbis had the right idea, but got the wrong holiday.

Finally, according to Sotah 9:15, “In the footsteps of the Messiah, arrogance [chutzpah] will increase; prices will rise; grapes will be abundant but wine will be costly; the government will turn into heresy; and there will be no reproach.” That kind of sounds like today’s world, especially in this economy.

Well, I don’t know that Mike Blowers is the messiah, but this really is an unbelievable prediction. Blowers calls it perfectly. First, he says Seattle Mariners rookie infielder Matt Tuiasosopo would be the Player of the Game. Next, he predicts that Tuiasosopo would hit his first Major League home run. Not only that, but he guesses it will come in his second at bat, off a fastball on a 3-1 count and that Tuiasosopo would hit it into the second deck. Unbelievable call!

Watch the video below and then try to figure out why Mike Blowers didn’t spend his time at the racetrack instead of trying to play professional baseball where he journeyed from team to team including three stints with the Mariners.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Detroit Food Jewish Kosher Rabbi

Kosher Chain Restaurants

With Yom Kippur commencing this Sunday evening, I couldn’t resist blogging about food…

In June 2006 I wrote about the opening of the first kosher Subway restaurant in North America. I then had a chance to try it when I was in Cleveland later that year (with Rabbi Steve Weiss at left). It was delicious and a real treat to walk into a Subway and order a meatball and cheese sub (fake cheese of course!).

Now, Subway has quickly become the largest kosher restaurant chain in the U.S. according to an article in the JTA this past August. Subway recently opened its ninth kosher franchise in a North Miami Beach JCC. By the end of 2009 there will be eleven kosher Subway franchises and five more planned for 2010. Dunkin Donuts has some 33 chains that are kosher, but they do not serve full meals there (only coffee, donuts, and breakfast sandwiches).

In Metro Detroit, we have a kosher Dunkin Donuts, but no Subway restaurants. Rumors of a Subway franchise opening in the Jewish Community Center sprouted up several times over the past couple of years, but ultimately the deal fell through. Jerusalem Pizza, owned by Brian Jacobs, has taken over the space vacated by Matt Prentice Restaurant Group’s Milk & Honey kosher dairy restaurant in the West Bloomfield JCC. Brian’s new sit-down dairy restaurant at the Jewish Center is very good.

Through my kosher certification, Kosher Michigan, I supervise a bagel and cookie bakery that recently opened its second location. Marty’s Cookies and Bagel Cafe opened at the end of the summer in West Bloomfield. The two stores are the perfect synergy between the two owners. Josh Charlip, who owns The Bagel Factory, and Stacy Fox, who owns Marty’s Cookies. As Stacy likes to say, “A balanced diet is a cookie in one hand and a bagel in the other.” Stacy purchased Marty’s Cookies many years ago from the founders Joyce and Marty Herman, my parents’ long-time friends. Marty has since died (he was killed in a motorcycle accident), but I’m so happy that his name lives on through these delicious cookies.

While I’m not sure that Jerusalem Pizza or Marty’s Cookies & Bagel Cafe could quite be called a kosher restaurant chain, it is exciting that local kosher eateries in Detroit are expanding.

In the recent issue of the New York Jewish Week, there is an article about the “chain-ing of kosher food.” Is it a good thing? I think it’s great!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Camp Detroit Health Jewish

Cleanliness is Next to Godliness

A Healthy Learning Opportunity
Reprinted from the Detroit Jewish News

When I was a camper, I do not remember my counselors ever reminding me to wash my hands before a meal. Nor can I remember bottles of hand sanitizer being readily available in the dining hall. I also do not recall learning the proper etiquette for sneezing and coughing at camp.

Much has changed.

The H1N1 flu has affected many camps this summer. At Tamarack Camps, protocols and preventative measures were discussed months prior to the summer. In consultation with the ACA (American Camp Association) and the CDC (Center for Disease Control), our health director, along with our doctors, nurses and medical committee, devised proactive implementation plans and executed them effectively.

Pump It Up Tamarack - Campers and Staff with Hand SanitizersDealing with extra health precautions this summer has certainly been a challenge. However, as every educator knows well, any situation can become an opportunity to learn.

Concern for our own personal health is a core Jewish value. Many of the Torah’s commandments promote good hygiene, though their stated intention was ritual purity rather than physical cleanliness. In the Book of Leviticus, one learns how those afflicted with a severe skin disease were treated. In order to contain the skin disease (a form of leprosy), the afflicted were quarantined. They were kept outside of the community to prevent the contamination of the camp through the spread of their disease. The quarantine ensured the holiness of the camp and the health of the inhabitants.

The Talmud records numerous references concerning the importance of personal hygiene and preventative medicine. In tractate Ta’anit, the rabbis consider the human body as a sanctuary. In honor of God, the rabbis ordained that one must wash one’s face, hands and feet – daily. In tractate Yoma, for example, the rabbis recommend oil as a hygienic agent, especially in the case of wounds and eruptions, as well as a gargle.

The Shulchan Aruch, the premier code of Jewish law, explores the importance of personal hygiene in great detail. Washing one’s hands, our tradition teaches, is important not merely for the spiritual reasons of maintaining holiness when eating and praying, but also for hygienic reasons.

Maimonides, a scholar and physician, encouraged the Jewish community to observe rules of personal hygiene, such as hand-washing before eating.

This unfortunate strain of Influenza, which has put all overnight camps on high alert this summer, has created some teachable moments. Offering the Hebrew word “labriyoot” (to your health) when someone sneezes has a newfound seriousness this summer. A particularly meaningful part of the week at camp is watching campers pray for the speedy recovery of their fellow campers through the words of the misheberach blessing during Shabbat morning services, using the tune popularized by Jewish songwriter Debbie Friedman. And while campers may be discouraged from performing the mitzvah of visiting the sick when the patient is contagious, it is a valuable lesson which has developed into creating get well cards.

The level of preparation displayed by Jewish camps has been exemplary. It is a testament to the emphasis we all place on good health and preventative medicine. Camp in 2009 is a place where it is common for campers to have their temperatures taken twice daily as a precautionary measure for early detection of the flu. It is a place where counselors constantly remind campers to wash their hands and brush their teeth, and where hand sanitizers are found on every table in the dining hall.

It might feel like a time of challenging health issues, but it has also proven to be an incredible opportunity for teaching about the value of good personal hygiene. Hopefully, at the end of this summer, each camper will have a new found appreciation for cleanliness, good health, and the important Jewish value of hygiene.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Conservative Judaism Detroit Jewish Orthodox Judaism Reform Judaism

Kaddish for Conservative Judaism

There have been many changes in the top leadership of the Conservative Movement recently. First was the commencement of the Arnie Eisen era at the Jewish Theological Seminary. With the beginning of Arnie Eisen’s chancellorship also came the change in leadership at the Seminary’s rabbinical school with Rabbi Daniel Nevins as the new dean. Second, came the change in leadership at the Rabbinical Assembly with Rabbi Julie Schoenfeld taking the RA’s top job. Yesterday marked the confirmation of Rabbi Steven Wernick (right) as the CEO and executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the arm of the movement representing the congregations.

It seems as though all the players who have the potential to put the Conservative Movement on the right course have taken the field. It will be interesting to see what the future will bring.

The Conservative Movement has done a very good job of staying in the news recently. Unfortunately, not all news is good news. The latest round of infighting and hand wringing within the ranks of the Conservative Movement has been prompted by the emergence of two groups of movement leaders.

One group, Hayom: Coalition for the Transformation of Conservative Judaism, is made up of the rabbis and board presidents of the largest congregations in the country (here’s a link to the list of group members which has recently opened up membership to the leaders of congregations of all sizes). The second group, calling itself “Bonim” is a grassroots coalition of fed-up lay-leaders from approximately forty congregations threatening to leave the Conservative Movement. Both of these groups have made headlines with their allegations toward the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Essentially, they have formalized the complaints from member congregations that have been informally articulated over the years. Add to this the Canadian congregations that have left the Conservative Movement to form a new organization in response to the decision to admit gays and lesbians into the rabbinical and cantorial schools at the movement’s seminaries

But, perhaps what has produced the most headlines about the Conservative Movement in recent weeks was an interview with Rabbi Norman Lamm (left), Yeshiva University luminary and a modern Orthodox scholar.

In the interview with the Jerusalem Post which took place in Israel, Lamm prophesied that the time has come to say “Kaddish” for Conservative Judaism. He included Reform Judaism as well in his premature obituary. “With a heavy heart we will soon say kaddish on the Reform and Conservative Movements,” said Lamm, head of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University. He went on to add that the “Conservatives are in a mood of despondency and pessimism. They are closing schools and in general shrinking.”

Lamm’s pronouncement prompted many responses from Conservative Movement leaders. All criticized Lamm for his inappropriate comments and most found aspects of Conservative Judaism to be proud of. Rabbinical Assembly executive vice president Rabbi Julie Schoenfeld (right) penned an articulate response in which she underscored the authenticity of Conservative Judaism and mentioned some of the recent changes she has already implemented in her new position. [I can personally vouge for her hard work and initial success by way of example. Rabbi Schoenfeld has convened a subcommittee, on which I serve, to help improve the technological resources available through the Rabbinical Assembly and in only a couple months, much has been accomplished.] She also remarked that at the recent AIPAC Policy Conference, the majority of the rabbis in attendance were members of the Conservative Movement’s rabbinic group.

Rabbi Julie Schoenfeld also underscored the popularity of the Hekhsher Tzedek initiative. She writes, “many of Rabbi Lamm’s Orthodox constituents who are in agreement with my colleague, Rabbi Morris Allen’s call that we take ethical mitzvot as seriously as ritual ones in the preparation of kosher food. The message we are hearing loud and clear is that the American Jewish community is quite literally hungry to lead lives where the ritual is bound up in the ethical underpinning.”

Rabbi Andrew Sacks of the Masorti Movement, Conservative Judaism’s Israeli branch, fired back writing a response to Rabbi Lamm in the Jerusalem Post in which he took him on point by point. Richard Moline, the director the Conservative Movement’s college outreach program Koach, wrote an op-ed piece for JTA encouraging Conservatives to look in the mirror and shoulder the responsibility rather than blaming the institution. My favorite response was by one Conservative rabbi who questioned which “Kaddish” Rabbi Lamm proposed be said for Conservative Judaism: Full Kaddish, Rabbi’s Kaddish, or a Mourner’s Kaddish?

The most scholarly and perhaps the most convincing rebuttal of Rabbi Lamm’s comments came from the preeminent scholar of Modern American Judaism, Prof. Jonathan Sarna (left), who reminded Lamm of the predictions in the 1950s that the demise of Orthodox Judaism was an inevitable reality. In the Forward, Professor Sarna wrote:

Lamm’s triumphalistic prediction has, unsurprisingly, elicited strong and angry responses from Conservative and Reform leaders who consider their movements youthful and vibrant. For a historian, though, the prediction cannot help but call to mind earlier attempts to divine American Judaism’s future.

When Lamm was young, those who followed trends in Jewish life expected to say Kaddish for Orthodox Judaism. A careful study in 1952 found that “only twenty-three percent of the children of the Orthodox intend to remain Orthodox; a full half plan to turn Conservative.” The future of American Jewry back then seemed solidly in the hands of Conservative Jews.

Years earlier, in the late 19th century, Reform Judaism expected to say Kaddish for other kinds of Jews. The great architect of American Reform Judaism, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, titled his prayer book “Minhag Amerika” — the liturgical custom of American Jews — and given the number of synagogues that moved into the Reform camp in his day, his vision did not seem farfetched. Many in the mid-1870s believed, as he did, that the future of American Judaism lay in the hands of the Reformers.

Before then, of course, those with crystal balls expected to say Kaddish for Judaism as a whole in America. One of the nation’s wisest leaders, its then attorney general, William Wirt, predicted in 1818 that within 150 years, Jews would be indistinguishable from the rest of mankind. Former president John Adams likewise looked to the future and thought that Jews would “possibly in time become liberal Unitarian Christians.”

All these predictions made sense in their day. All assumed that the future would extend forward in a straight line from the present. All offered their followers the comforting reassurance that triumph lay just beyond the horizon.

And all proved utterly and wildly wrong. Lamm’s prediction is unlikely to break this depressing streak of failures.

Well, I certainly find Lamm’s suggestion that it is time to say Kaddish for Conservative Judaism to be both inappropriate and narrow-minded. He was looking to be controversial. Before reacting to his comment, it is first necessary to make the distinction between Conservative Judaism (an ideology) and the Conservative Movement (an institutional denomination).

Conservative Judaism is a centrist ideology of Judaism. It promotes an understanding of Judaism that retains the authority of the Torah (tradition) while also remaining open to modern innovation (change). It leaves enough room for its adherents to choose various options with regard to the authorship of the Torah, from divine authorship with revelation at Mt. Sinai to human authorship over time, with several options in between.

Conservative Judaism is a viable ideology of Modern Judaism. It is the centrist position situated between the Reform ideology on the left and Orthodoxy on its right. It is the Conservative Movement that is in trouble. The movement found its heyday in the middle of the last century. It was growing by leaps and bounds with the largest Hebrew schools, high holiday services overflowing into social halls and school gymnasiums, and youth groups with expanding memberships. The movement took this success for granted. At the time, it was the movement that had the congregations that people found to be the perfect balance between the Orthodoxy they were raised in and the liberalism that they desired. With the rise of intermarriage, many flocked to the inviting and more tolerant Reform congregations. Others drank the Kool-Aid at Camp Ramah and moved to the right of the Conservative Movement by embracing a modern Orthodox lifestyle and joining an Orthodox shul.

Yes, there are still programs with the Conservative Movement seal for which movement members should take pride. The Ramah camping program is a clear success, but to be fair so are the Reform movement camps. Jewish summer camping in general is a success story. And I can speak of the local success of the new consolidated Hebrew High School program here in Metro Detroit. ATID (Alliance for Teens in Detroit), a weekly after-school informal Jewish high school program, is a collaborative effort by the Conservative synagogue’s in town. It is a program for which the Conservative Movement should be proud.

The real complaint about the Conservative Movement is not really with the movement. It certainly isn’t with Conservative Judaism as a way of practicing the Jewish faith either. It is with United Synagogue as an organization. And that’s actually a good thing because it is much easier for an organization to change (and I wish Rabbi Wernick the best of luck because it will be an uphill climb). The allegations are that Conservative synagogues have been paying hefty dues to the United Synagogue (headquartered in Manhattan) without seeing much value in return. When the economy was stronger, the congregations paid their dues knowing that if they didn’t they would have trouble getting a rabbi or cantor placed at their congregation and their youth would be barred from attending youth group conventions. Times have changed. Every dollar counts and congregations have begun to withhold these dues until they get more (and better) services in return. I think that’s a valid demand.

Going forward, the Conservative Movement must be less concerned with numbers. It doesn’t much matter how many families have left Conservative synagogues. Many of the families that have left likely shouldn’t have been there in the first place. Movement leaders also should be less concerned with how many synagogues are merging as there were likely too many shuls in the same geographic area before.

So, what should the leaders of the Conservative Movement be concerned about? For starters, they should promote the Conservative Judaism ideology and way of life. That would require a collaborative PR effort among all the arms of the movement including the seminaries, professional organizations, camps, youth groups, Schechter day schools, and the movement’s Israel and overseas branches. The movement (read: United Synagogue) must do a better job of educating its members about its raison d’etre.

United Synagogue also has to do a better job of operating with less. That means taking the Reform Movement’s lead and getting rid of the regional offices. (Note: this has already begun with plans to merge several USCJ regions). I would also recommend finding some less expensive office space, which might entail moving out of Manhattan.

Finally, I would recommend encouraging collaboration among member congregations. Use the ATID model if you’d like. It is what happens when a few Conservative congregations that spent decades competing with each other were able to come together collaboratively for the sake of their teenage populations and Jewish education. USCJ should urge and facilitate the merger of two struggling Conservative congregations in the same area. If handled correctly, it will benefit both parties. The movement should also merge its Israel trips for high school youth. It is redundant to send teens to Israel through both United Synagogue Youth and Camp Ramah.

Does the Conservative Movement need to look in the mirror more? Probably. It’s a good practice for all of us. But more than anything, movement leaders should stop caring what old, retired Orthodox university scholars are saying and begin moving forward into the future together with pride. Time is of the essence.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |