Camp children Education Jewish

Jewish Silly Bandz

It didn’t take long for me to notice that this summer’s fad was Silly Bandz, the colorful rubber bands in various shapes worn on kids’ wrists. Wherever I went, I saw campers and counselors at Camp Maas, Tamarack Camps‘ residential Jewish camp where I work as the agency’s rabbi, trading all sorts of rubber shapes, but sadly I didn’t see anything with a Jewish theme in the collections.

So I went to the Web to try to find the Jewish version of Silly Bandz and landed on Rabbi Moshe Rabin’s site, A Chabad rabbi in Florida who runs a girls’ seminary, Rabin tapped into the latest fad quickly. He’s not the only one who has created a Jewish version of Silly Bandz, but I like his educational approach to the product. I called Rabbi Rabin to let him know that I was glad he was using Silly Bandz for Jewish education. After speaking for a while, we realized that we each had many connections to Jewish youth who would enjoy adding Jewish Silly Bandz to their collection, but these connections didn’t overlap. I work predominantly with Jewish youth in the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist branches of Judaism, while Rabin is an Orthodox Jewish educator and Chabad Lubavitch emissary.

Jewly Bandz has produced a symbolic selection of Jewish Silly Bandz in the thematic shapes of the Jewish holidays with each holiday represented in elastic shapes kids everywhere will wear with pride and look forward to sharing and trading with their friends. Rabbi Rabin told me, “When I saw children so excited to collect the latest bands, I knew there was an opportunity here to teach Torah in a fun way.”

Judaism in the 21st century needs to keep pace with the current trends. If kids are crazy about collecting Silly Bandz bracelets, I want to see a shofar bracelet on every Jewish child’s wrist in the month before Rosh Hashanah.

Many organizations, like synagogues and temples, Jewish camps, JCCs, Federations, and Chabad Houses, are using Jewly Bandz for fundraising too. There is free shipping for Jewly Bandz orders over $25 and if you enter my special code (“Rabbi Jason”) you will receive 20% off if the order is placed on the Jewly Bandz website before August 31.

Monies raised selling Jewly Bandz™ will be used to fund educational scholarships for Jewish children. To purchase JewlyBandz, visit

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
College Education JTS Michigan Teachers

Avot: My Teachers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Education Judaism and Technology Rabbi Technology

Will Smartphones & Handhelds Lead to an Educational Revolution?

Cross-posted at Jewish Techs

In a recent blog post, my colleague and teacher Rabbi Hayim Herring writes about the recent Fast Company article that questions whether the introduction of smartphones and handheld computers into classrooms worldwide will be the start of an educational revolution. Anya Kamenetz, author of the book DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education wonders “How technology could unleash childhood creativity — and transform the role of the teacher.”

Is the use of handhelds in the classroom leading to an educational revolution or is it just another fad? Educators are eager to integrate the latest technology into their classrooms, but they must ensure that they have already figured out the right application to utilize the technology. American youth will be impressed to see the latest handheld and wireless gadgets in use at their schools, but if they’re not wowed with the way they are being used their attention will wane.

Herring writes in the Tools for Shuls blog:

The article, entitled A is for App: How Smartphones, Handheld Computers Sparked an Educational Revolution, claims that studies show that technology can actually make kids smarter. It then goes on to describe several new learning devices which are already having impact on how children learn in different cultures and among different socio-economic communities. The author claims the bottom line is these technologies work anytime, anywhere.

Think about the revolution in entertainment. Entertainment has gone from a “command and control” model, with elites directing the content, format, venue and timing, to an “iTunes model,” in which users not only control their entertainment, but can also create it! In a similar vein, this article suggests that young learners will soon have the opportunity to be in the driver’s seat of their own education. The role of the teacher will change from instructor to coach, and teachers will finally have the ability to help students customize their learning so that they can proceed at their own pace. Students will be able to follow their own imaginations instead of a hierarchically imposed set of rules that someone else has defined as “learning.”

Young children today are picking up mom’s or dad’s iPhone, Droid or Blackberry and familiarizing themselves with these pocket-sized wireless devices. “A computer on every desk” is beginning to mean that more first-graders will have a notebook computer on the desk in their bedroom. So, when these kids walk into a classroom the expectation will be that technology is part of the educational plan. It was once impressive to see a computer workstation in each classroom, but in 2010 each student needs to be plugged in from their seat.

And this will translate to religious education as well. The rabbi may well ask the students to take out their smartphone and Google the week’s Torah portion. As the article makes clear, the implementation of smartphone and handheld technology in the classroom is already a common idea among tech-driven educational entrepreneurs. And it will imagine a new role for teachers.

“The main transformational change that needs to happen is for the teacher to transform from the purveyor of information to the coach,” says Seth Weinberger of Innovations for Learning, creator of TeacherMate. As Richard Rowe of Open Learning Exchange puts it, “Up until very recently, most communications were hub-and-spoke, one to many. The Internet is a many-to-many environment, which is in the early stages of having a major impact on education. It involves a fairly major change in the concept of what education is, which is one of the reasons we use the term ‘learning’ as distinct from ‘education.’ It’s student-centered and student-empowered.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Camp Education Interfaith Israel Jewish Jewish Youth

The Decade in Jewish Education

A couple days ago JESNA (“advancing Jewish learning, transforming Jewish lives”) chose what it considers to be the best in Jewish education of the decade. At the conclusion of their top 10 (actually 11) list, they invited others to share their own lists. And so I have. First, here’s the JESNA list (in no particular order):

  • Taglit-Birthright Israel
  • Funding Partnerships
  • Consumer-centric Education
  • Rise of Innovation Sector
  • Congregational Educational Change Initiatives
  • Revitalization of Jewish camps
  • Online Jewish Learning
  • PJ Library
  • Jewish Service Learning
  • “Public Space” Jewish Education
  • Focus on Outcomes

And now, here is my list of the best in Jewish education for the past decade:

Jewish Camping – I may be biased as the rabbi of a large Jewish camping agency, but Jewish summer camps are just about the only thing working these days in terms of informal Jewish education (I’ll get to those 10-day free Israel trips in a moment!). Thanks to Elisa and Rob Bildner who had the foresight to found the Foundation for Jewish Camp and to mega-donor Harold Grinspoon, Jewish camps are on the rise. The euphoric experience that thousands of Jewish kids and teens feel for a month or two each summer is the Jewish education world’s home run.

Technology – From online distance learning to Jewish utilization of social media (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube), no one can dispute that modern technology and communication have removed borders and made the global Jewish community feel much smaller. Many Jewish organizations have figured out how to use Web 2.0 applications to their advantage and many more are just beginning to navigate the terrain. I have to single out Darim, who’s “committed to assisting Jewish organizations in their efforts to increase their professionalism and relationship-building capacity through the effective use of technology.”

Indie-Minyans – I was surprised JESNA didn’t mention Hadar, which I consider the decade’s premier example of do-it-yourself Judaism, albeit in a professionalized way. Hadar began the decade as a start-up minyan (in a cramped NYC apartment) and ended it as a dynamic community that includes a yeshiva, minyan, and think tank. Hadar is educating 20- and 30-something urban Jews in fresh ways, and the established synagogues and seminaries are certainly watching closely.

JDate – Yes, I’m including an online dating website as one of the best in Jewish education for the decade. JDate has 650,000 members worldwide making it a substantial community. While it may not be a traditional education website, its members learn a lot about Judaism while searching for their potential mate. It also forces many unaffiliated Jews to feel connected with a Jewish community, and to consider their own Jewishness (and their future Jewishness). It also helps “strengthen the Jewish community and ensure that Jewish traditions are sustained for generations to come” more than most educational initiatives.

Pro-Israel Groups – I’m always amazed at the level of involvement so many unaffiliated Jews have with organizations like AIPAC and StandWithUs. These groups are committed to educating the Jewish community about Israel’s history, culture, people, and politics, as well as its struggle to survive.

Jewish Service Learning – The past decade was all about a new form of tikkun olam. More Jews than ever combined Jewish learning with a zeal for pursuing justice. This one-two punch caused organizations like AJWS, Jewish Funds for Justice, and Avodah to flourish. Jews were able to apply their Torah learning to real life situations (business ethics to the Enron and Madoff scandals, ethical kashrut to the Rubashkin/Agriprocessors debacle, pursuing global justice to Darfur, pikuach nefesh to post-9/11 security systems, etc.).

Inclusion – Gay rights in the Jewish community came about through education. The Boston-based Keshet discovered new ways to educate the community about GLBT inclusion, while a gay Orthodox rabbi came out of the closet to help create and promote a film about homosexuality in the Orthodox world. The Conservative movement’s seminaries opened their doors to gays and lesbians, and the decade ended with the majority of Reform and Conservative rabbis willing to perform commitment ceremonies for same sex couples.

Informal Ed – In each decade, JCCs and Hillels have had to adapt to new trends. These are the community centers for the Jewish people and thus, have to offer everything the Jewish community seeks — whether in the suburbs, the city, or on campus. Learning Torah with a local rabbi under the same roof you can practice Yoga, swim laps, send your toddler to pre-school or your teen to high school, have a Kosher lunch meeting, go to the theater, and rally for Israel is truly impressive. It’s possible that our JCCs are the most underrated educational agency in our Jewish community.

Post-Denominationalism – I believe the last decade prepared us for true post-denominationalism in this new decade. The last ten years saw the rise of community day schools and high schools, and therefore the growth of Ravsak — the network of these non-denominational schools. It also became common for Reform and Conservative congregations to merge in an effort for both of them to survive. In most cases, these bi-denominational mergers proved flawless. Family foundations and federations created programs, fellowships, and new organizations that transcended the movements. With mega-money from the Bronfmans, Schustermans, Steinhardts, Wexners, Davidsons, Grinspoons, and Adelsons came programs that no one denomination could claim — the STAR Foundation’s Synaplex and PEER programs, Taglit-Birthright free Israel trips, PJ Library, Avi Chai, PEJE, etc. The growth of organizations like BBYO, Melton, and Clal also demonstrate a post-denominational, informal educational spirit.

Interfaith – Through the out-of-the-box education offered by the Jewish Outreach Institute and Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, the Jewish community began to consider interfaith families in new ways. While the Reform movement was quick to welcome the interfaith family, the more traditional movements need to be educated on why this is of paramount importance to the future of Jewish peoplehood.

Conclusion: The Jewish community is always changing and it is through education that we reach new heights. In the new decade, we’ll begin to see the impact of the young Hadar-influenced leadership on synagogues and temples across the country. New advances in technology will allow us to share Jewish wisdom across continents at lightning speed. We’ll see much more collaboration between synagogues, federations, camps, and youth groups to create community-wide endeavors that will save money and reach more Jewish people quicker. We’ll also begin to determine whether the mega-philanthropists and federations are really getting the bangs for their millions of bucks with the Birthright Israel investment. Because if we don’t see real results in the coming years, we’ll regret how much money was spent on middle-class 20-somethings for their free-ride to Israel at the expense of many other important educational initiatives. Finally, the alphabet soup of Jewish communal life will get smaller as we weed out redundant organizations, and support creativity and innovation — the hallmarks of Jewish education.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Education Jewish JTS Trends

Private Jewish Tutoring

Last weekend at a wedding, I was approached by a lovely couple who were very excited to see me after many years. It took me a moment to recall they were Brian’s parents, but when I did, my excitement matched theirs. Brian was a student in the first class of Hebrew School I ever taught. I got my start as a Jewish educator as a young 18-year-old college freshman in East Lansing, Michigan. I taught the same group of students for three years in a row; from fourth grade through sixth grade.

After Brian finished sixth grade, his parents hired me as a private tutor to continue teaching him Hebrew and to train him for his upcoming bar mitzvah. For a year, I visited Brian at his parent’s home on a weekly basis where we went over his Torah portion, haftorah (selection from the Prophets), and worked on his bar mitzvah speech. Some thirteen years later, I still remember learning about the Nazirite Samson with Brian. I didn’t merely teach him to recite his Torah reading and haftorah; rather, we studied the biblical text with the commentary so that he understood what he was chanting to the congregation.

Brian’s parents shared with me how meaningful that experience had been for their son. As they walked away, I found myself feeling nostalgic about the one-on-one Jewish education I offered Brian, and also about the article I recently read in the New York Jewish Week about private Jewish tutoring.

The NY Jewish Week cover story explained something I quickly discovered upon moving to Manhattan for rabbinical school over a decade ago. Many families choose to hire private tutors in lieu of Hebrew School. Writer Julie Wiener explains:

As seemingly growing numbers of families in New York and other major metropolitan areas eschew Hebrew schools for the convenience and intimacy of private tutors, many in the organized Jewish world — particularly those active in synagogues — worry that tutoring’s individualized approach, part of a larger trend in modern American culture, poses a threat not just to synagogues, but to the very ideals of Jewish community.

The only thing that surprised me about Wiener’s article was that it took this long for the topic to make the headlines. At the Jewish Theological Seminary in the late 90’s, I had quite a side-business with the various private tutoring jobs I amassed. There was an e-mail list sponsored by the Rabbinical School Student Organization (RSSO). Local Manhattan families would post blurbs about their need for a private tutor for their son or daughter who was too busy to attend Hebrew school at the temple or synagogue, had a learning disability that required an individualized approach, didn’t care for the Hebrew School teacher, or didn’t get along with the other kids in Hebrew School. In some cases, the parents didn’t want to join a temple or synagogue, preferring a do-it-yourself approach instead. In other cases, they didn’t want their child to commit to the several hours a week of Hebrew School that was required to become a bar or bat mitzvah because of extracurricular obligations like hockey, soccer, dance, theater, or other tutoring time.

The compensation was great for full-time graduate students in New York City. In most cases, I was paid $80/hour, but tutoring a group of students (i.e., three) was upwards of $125/hour. Many of the jobs were advertised on the e-mail list, but the best tutoring jobs were passed down from graduating rabbinical students to younger rabbinical students.

When my friend and next-door neighbor Mickey Stanger graduated from the Seminary, I inherited several of his students. There was the young boy with ADHD who I tutored weekly for four years. His parents didn’t want to renew their membership at the synagogue and the boy’s learning disability wasn’t handled appropriately by the teachers. In the first couple years, I taught him Hebrew and basic information about Jewish holidays and customs. When he turned twelve, we began to prepare for his bar mitzvah — an intimate Havdallah service that I created specifically for him (do-it-yourself Judaism).

Those four years created a wonderful relationship not only with the young boy, but also with his parents. He never would have learned as much in a structured classroom, but I was able to personalize the lessons to meet his learning needs. Of course, it could be argued that while this family got what they wanted — a personalized bar mitzvah ceremony that perfectly fitted their son’s needs — they did not gain a closer relationship to a synagogue community or a rabbi as they would have with the traditional Hebrew School and bar mitzvah path.

There was also the group of three rowdy boys I tutored weekly around the kitchen table. They would have been thrown out of their Hebrew School classroom each week for their disruptive behavior, but I was able to reach them through various techniques that would have been impossible for a teacher in a classroom. I also tutored a young girl in Hebrew reading. Sitting in her parents’ multi-million dollar brownstone, I became the family’s rabbi often finding myself counseling the parents through their bitter divorce. While I usually found myself walking into vast, beautiful Upper East Side apartments to a team of nannies, maids, and other tutors, it was not just the wealthy who engaged tutors. Some families, as the NY Jewish Week article explains, are either allergic to shul membership or found it was more cost effective to forgo Hebrew School tuition for private tutoring.

JTS Professor Jack Wertheimer is quoted in the NY Jewish Week article. He “wonders how well private programs can socialize young Jews to feel part of a congregation. One of the great advantages of Jewish children being educated in schools is that they are exposed to different types of Jewish role models. They see the rabbi, they see their teachers, they see other adults engaged in Jewish living. The private route limits the exposure of young people.”

In the article, Rabbi Laurie Phillips, director of education at Congregation Habonim, likens Jewish studies tutoring to private sports lessons. “You can learn to play soccer with a tutor, but it’s a different experience if you’re learning one-on-one versus being part of a soccer team. You’ll know how to play, but won’t know how to be part of a team.” I think that’s a fair assessment when it comes to tutoring in place of Hebrew School. Unfortunately, because of time constraints there aren’t many families who are supplementing Hebrew School with tutors. It’s usually an all-or-nothing proposition.

Along with the argument that these children are missing out on the community experience when they are only privately tutored, there is also the case of synagogue membership hurting. Many families join congregations so that their children can attend Hebrew School and become bar or bat mitzvah. When Jewish families in the metropolitan areas opt for private tutoring instead of Hebrew School, it also means they’re going the do-it-yourself Judaism route as well and forsaking synagogue membership. That clearly hurts the synagogues.

Nevertheless, it appears that the private Jewish tutoring business is thriving. Some educators have incorporated and run large tutoring businesses for groups and individuals who opt out of the Hebrew School track. Rabbi Reuben Modek’s website for his Hebrew Learning Circles program offers private bar and bat mitzvah preparation, as well as cultural and religious education. As if that alone won’t infuriate local pulpit rabbis, Modek also advertises that he’ll officiate at life-cycle events taking full advantage of the craving for do-it-yourself Judaism.

It’s only a matter of time before this coastal and big city trend of private tutoring for those who opt out of Hebrew School makes its way to the “heartland” Jewish communities. Already, in the Metro Detroit area, one former synagogue bar/bat mitzvah tutor has begun advertising in the Detroit Jewish News that he can be hired for private tutoring for those not wishing to attend Hebrew School. Yes, this hurts synagogues, but ultimately let’s hope it will make Hebrew Schools improve. Competition often does just that.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Art Camp Education Jewish Youth

Irving Berg

When I was an 11-year-old camper at Camp Maas in Ortonville, Michigan, I had the privilege to be part of the group of campers in Deroy village who designed and built a concrete sculpture. “Priestly Blessing” is an artistic representation of the hands of the kohen (priest) offering his blessing. The artist who led the project was Irving Berg (right), the long-time artist-in-residence of Tamarack Camps.

Irving Berg died on March 21, 2009 at 87. It is impossible to walk around the Tamarack property (1,500 acres) without encountering his sculptures. The Irving Berg Sculpture Garden is one man’s permanent contribution to a Jewish camp. With these sculptures Irv will continue to educate Jewish campers about their heritage even after he no longer walks this earth.

This past summer (2008), I facilitated a scavenger hunt of sorts with the oldest campers at Camp Maas — the Teen Service Staff (TSS). The group of sixty teens who would be entering 11th grade were divided into smaller groups and then sent out in search of some of Irv Berg’s sculptures. They had to decipher the Jewish message each sculpture represents and then report back to the group. Many of the Jewish teens remarked how they had spent many summers at camp seeing these works of art, but never considered the deeper meaning behind each sculpture.

A wonderful tribute to Irv’s legacy at camp was created in Summer 2008. Award-winning animator Gary Schwartz created an animated documentary of Irv Berg’s sculptures. The film can be viewed below.

As the rabbi of Tamarack Camps, I had the distinct honor of officiating at Irv Berg’s funeral. The hesped (eulogy) that I delivered is available online and the obituary is available at the Detroit Jewish News website.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Basketball Conservative Judaism Detroit Education Jewish JTS

Bill Davidson

You couldn’t go anywhere in the Detroit area this past weekend without hearing people talk about Detroit Pistons owner Bill Davidson. Last Friday night the sad news was about former Pistons coach Chuck Daly announcing he has Pancreatic Cancer. This past Friday night the sad news was that “Mr. D” had died.

Bill Davidson, the owner of Guardian Industries (a worldwide glass manufacturer), bought the Detroit Pistons — a team that hadn’t shown a profit in 17 years — from Fred Zollner in 1974 for approximately six-million dollars (Davidson always said the reported seven-million dollar figure was overstated). The team is currently worth $480 million. He bought the team with his good friend Oscar Feldman, the team’s long time legal counsel (Current Advisory Board Members include Warren Coville, brother-in-law Bud Gerson, sister Dorothy Gerson, Ann Newman and William Wetsman).

Bill Davidson will be remembered as an innovator in the National Basketball Association (NBA). He was the first owner to fly his team on a private jet (“Roundball One”), sit court-side among the fans rather than in a private box or suite, and purchase a state-of-the-art arena (The Palace of Auburn Hills) with all private funds. Mr. Davidson was also the innovator of the co-branding and sponsorship marketing that has become commonplace inside NBA arenas.

Bill Davidson was not your typical billionaire (according to the Forbes list his net worth totals over $5.5 billion). He could have worn expensive custom-made Italian suits, but he preferred warm-up suits and Members-Only jackets.

With Mr. D in a conference room at the Guardian headquarters.

His philanthropic reach was enormous. Personally, I found that wherever I traveled on my own educational and professional journey there was Bill Davidson.

As a young student at Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit, I sat in classrooms that were part of a wing that Mr. Davidson named for his children Ethan and Marla Davidson (this was the first renovation of the school’s Middlebelt campus). I studied for my master’s degree at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. As a Jewish educator I’ve been part of continuing education programs in the Metro Detroit area through TEAM (Teacher Educator Advancement Model), a program of the Hermelin Davidson Center for Congregation Excellence. As a staff member of the University of Michigan Hillel Foundation, I worked in a building that was established because of the generosity of Mr. Davidson and many of his friends.

As a rabbi I have led groups in Israel to the Davidson Center for Exhibition and Virtual Reconstruction in the Jerusalem Archaeological Park, Israel’s most important antiquity site in the Old City of Jerusalem which was funded by Bill Davidson.

As a rabbi in Columbus, Ohio I was a guest at a dinner at the home of Les and Abigail Wexner for Jewish communal leaders to meet the newest class of Wexner Fellows and Davidson Scholars. In 2005, the Wexners launched the philanthropic partnership with William and Karen Davidson through the financial support of Guardian Industries Corp. This new partnership established an annual cohort of 10 Davidson Scholars as part of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship.

The Davidson school at the Seminary is a great example of Mr. Davidson’s philanthropic mission. He shared his thoughts about the vision of the school, but then allowed the school’s leadership to lead. He cared deeply about the students at the Davidson school and was eager to solicit their feedback. In January 2005 he invited the Davidson School’s alumni who live in Metro Detroit to his office at Guardian Industries to have lunch and discuss the school, Jewish education in general, and the future of the Conservative Movement (see blog post). It was evident that he did not merely want to endow a school; he wanted to make a significant difference in Jewish education. At the Davidson School it was not uncommon to hear fellow students refer to Bill Davidson as “Uncle Bill”.

At the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield, I walk by his Jewish Sports Hall of Fame plaque (right) each time I walk into the fitness center to work out. Mr. Davidson was inducted into the Michigan Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in the organization’s first year. He was also inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame in 2008.

Bill Davidson’s philanthropy was immense. The University of Michigan, Jewish Theological Seminary, the Weizmann Institute, and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology all benefited from his great fortune. In 2007, Mr. Davidson donated the second largest gift ever devoted to a Jewish cause with his $75 million donation to Jerusalem’s Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital. The hospital tower will be named for Davidson’s mother, Sarah Wetsman Davidson, a longtime Hadassah volunteer leader.

Regarding the Hadassah gift, Jonathan Aaron (Davidson’s assistant and son-in-law) was quoted in the Forward as saying, “Mr. Davidson doesn’t usually fund brick-and-mortar type projects, but here there was the history and the family ties.”

Detroit Free Press writer Mitch Albom summed up Mr. Davidson’s devotion to the State of Israel in his column yesterday. He wrote, “His love for the Jewish community and the state of Israel was unrivaled. As many tears are shed for his death in Detroit, there are likely that many falling in parts of the Holy Land. Davidson, who sometimes got on his private plane in pajamas and flew overnight to Tel Aviv, walked with the biggest names in that country. And his generosity — there, here and elsewhere — will be missed.”

This past December, Bill and Karen Davidson along with Jon and Mary Aaron invited all local alumni of the Jewish Theological Seminary to their suite at the Palace of Auburn Hills to watch the Detroit Pistons play. It was a very generous way for the Davidson family to acknowledge local rabbis, cantors, and educators. But more importantly, it gave all of us a chance to say “thank you” to this wonderful and kind man in his own home — in his Palace. Bill Davidson was a mentsch.

We’ll miss you Mr. D! Thank you for your immense contributions. Our world is a better place because of your generosity, demeanor, and leadership. May his family be comforted with the blessings of his memory.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Education Judaism and Technology Rabbi

PodCasting Torah

I love reading articles about the intersection of technology and religion, specifically Judaism. My colleague Rabbi Eli Garfinkel, with whom I worked at Camp Ramah Wisconsin in 1997, was featured in a USA Today article last month about the use of podcasts in religious groups.

Rabbi Eli Garfinkel, spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Somerset, N.J., a Conservative Jewish congregation, says he draws listeners from as far away as Italy, Argentina and Israel on his podcast, RabbiPod.

“I’ve been working on teaching the Torah in an accessible manner for a long time, and when the podcast technology was invented, it just seemed like a natural,” he says.

The article explains that Podcasting is an inexpensive way for pastors and rabbis to greatly expand their audience beyond the walls of their own place of worship.

Israel Anderson, a software designer in Denver who operates a free site called God’s iPod, screens all podcasts submitted to him and weeds out most. Part of what’s driving the popularity of religious podcasts is dissatisfaction with organized religion, Anderson says. “If you’re in a home church or go primarily for fellowship but your church isn’t particularly good at teaching, a podcast is a good way to hear from a wide variety of people.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Antisemitism Education Holidays Jewish

New York Post Mishegas

I’ve never been a reader of the New York Post… not even when I lived in Manhattan. But I’ve visited the New York Post website twice in the past few days to check out articles that were recommended to me by other rabbis.

The first article is about the crazy story on the New York City subway (Brooklyn’s Q train) where a man was beaten for offering a “Happy Hanukkah” greeting. Thanks to Conservative Rabbi Michael Friedland of South Bend, Indiana for bringing the story to my attention. Rabbi Friedland was able to use the story for a sermon about Jewish identity last Shabbat.

The story broke on December 11 in the New York Post, where it was reported that “a Hanukkah greeting among passengers on a Q train set off an altercation that resulted in ten people being charged with hate crimes yesterday… It began after the four victims exchanged Hanukkah greetings and one of the assailants made anti-Semetic remarks about Jews killing Jesus.”

Apparently these subway riders were beaten for responding “Happy Hanukkah” to a group who wished them a “Merry Christmas.” The story turns odd, however, when the facts come out:

1) The guy who beat up the “Happy Hanukkah” greeter on the train and is charged with a hate crime is Joseph Jirovec. He says that this couldn’t have been an anti-Semitic hate crime because… (ready for this?) his own mother is Jewish.

2) The person who instigated the altercation by wishing “Happy Hanukkah” is not Jewish at all. The other two people who were beaten up are self-described “half Jews” whose mothers are not Jewish (making them not Jewish according to the traditional Jewish legal definition).

3) The hero in this case is Hassan Askari, a Muslim from Bangladesh, who saved the victims from a more serious beating.

So, to recap we have a Jewish hoodlum instigating a fight with some non-Jews on a Brooklyn subway for wishing him a Happy Hanukkah in response to his Merry Christmas. After stating that “Hanukkah is when the Jews killed Jesus,” the Jewish guy beats up the non-Jews who are then saved by a Muslim. Happy Holidays everyone!

The other news item I checked out at the New York Post is an article titled “Rent-A-Rabbi: Execs Pay Big for On-The-Job-Religion”. Aish HaTorah has taken the concept of “Torah on the Go,” in which rabbis take their Torah study sessions into the corporate boardrooms downtown, and is profiting big time from it.

For guilty Jews who can pay as much as $250,000 a year, a rabbi from Aish New York, a nonprofit educational center, will get religious with you anytime, anywhere. Everyone from Kirk Douglas to executives at Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan and major hedge funds are clients, the company says.

There is no set curriculum, and the only expectation is that the students contribute a minimum annual donation of $10,000. Clients use their half-hour to hour sessions to talk about Torah verses, relationships – even how to make Jewish bread.

Ten-grand to learn to make challah with an Aish rabbi on your lunch hour at Goldman? Seems a little steep. But if these money managers can sign up the Aish rabbis as clients it might be money well spent.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Education Jewish JTS Prayer Spirituality

The Marley Minyan

In Jewish prayer there are some liturgical tunes known as “Mi-Sinai tunes.” Not that they are literally from Mt. Sinai, but the terminology expresses their authenticity. As the Congregation Emunath Israel website explains about the history of chazzanut (Jewish cantorial singing):

The Maharil was the Posek (Halachic authority) for the largest Jewish communities of the day – Worms, Speyer, Mayence, Regensberg, etc. He was upset at the “foreign” elements intruding in the melody of tefillah, and he set out to determine which versions were the true ones (Mi-Sinai or Scarbova). He was able to do that because of the Crusades that brought Jews from all over Europe to seek safety in the Rhineland. He examined the different musical strains, and determined which were authentic. His P’sak (Halachic ruling) – that “Ein L’Shanos” – one may not change the musical Nusach of a community, is standardized as Halacha by the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 619). You can, of course, see that in the Mishneh Brura as well. He was also responsible for standardizing Nusach Ashkenaz in the form that our Siddur takes…

Well, at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Davidson School of Jewish Education (my alma mater), there is now a monthly prayer group that incorporates tunes that are not “Mi-Sinai” but more likely “Mi-Woodstock.” The JTA reports that this prayer group is “part guided meditation, part sing-along, part traditional prayer and part dorm-room musical jam that includes instruments ranging from guitars to didgeridos.”

My feeling is that this is what the Davidson School is all about: Jewish educators praying together, experimenting with tefillah, and finding the spiritual nexus between the Jewish liturgy (psalms, blessings, etc.) and popular music (Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, etc.). For those who would object to the use of musical instruments on Shabbat, rest assured that this “Jam Davening” takes place during the week.

Rabbi Danny NevinsMy teacher Rabbi Danny Nevins (right), who is the new dean of the JTS Rabbinical School, is a great drummer who has been hosting drum circles in his office for rabbinical students at the Seminary. The fusion of jamming and davening will bring more passion to JTS and by extension to Conservative synagogues. As evidenced by the popular Congregation B’nai Jeshurun (B.J.) synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, lively music during prayer draws crowds and helps bring people closer to God.

Jacob Berkman writes in the JTA article:

Jam Davening draws about double the audience of a typical learning minyan, participants say. Now the group is trying to figure out how to bring Jam Davening to a wider audience, first by inviting the broader seminary community into the minyan, then by taking the idea to individual synagogues. This comes at a time when music is rapidly being introduced into Conservative synagogues.

Musical instruments had been excluded from Conservative synagogues on Shabbat partially because of Jewish law and partially as a remembrance of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem nearly 2,000 years ago. But starting in the 1950s, the movement allowed Conservative congregations to decide for themselves whether to use instruments.

Now as the movement debates whether Jews should be praying for the rebuilding of the Temple or just Jerusalem — and about whether or not the use of electricity on Shabbat is banned — the use of instruments has also come under “healthy debate,” according to Rabbi Moshe Edelman, the director of the Committee on Congregational Standards for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Also, members of the Law Committee of the Rabbinical Assembly are working on a paper to address the issue, according to Rabbi Joel Roth, a professor of Talmud and Jewish law and formerly the head of the committee.

What do you think about Jam Davening? Leave your comments below.

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