My Ugandan National Parliament Endorsement

As a rabbi, I’m hesitant to publicly endorse any political candidates. First, I try to keep my politics private; and second, I don’t want to jeopardize the tax-exempt status of any non-profit organizations which I represent. However, I’m going to go out on a limb here and endorse my friend and rabbinic colleague for Uganda’s National Parliament.

Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, who was recently ordained at the American Jewish University, is running for National Parliament of Uganda. When Gershom is elected, he’ll be the first Jew ever elected to any national office in Uganda. What’s more is that he will be the first rabbi to be seated in nationally elected government outside of Israel. Very impressive!

The Be’chol Lashon website quotes Gershom explaining that his political mission is directly connected to his religious vision. He says, “It is important that local and national government officials be tolerant and foster a climate of understanding between religious groups.” Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, of Be’chol Lashon, explains that “his vision of religious tolerance runs counter to the discrimination he experienced growing up during the rule of Idi Amin Dada. Under Amin, Judaism was banned and the native Jewish community, called the Abayudaya, was persecuted.”

I first met Gershom Sizomu when he came with J.J. Keki on a speaking tour to the U.S. I found him to be a mensch who is only concerned with the best interests of his people. I hope that the Ugandan people will vote for Rabbi Gershom Sizoum in the February 18, 2011 National Parliament elections.

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

Rogue Media Minyan

During my first year of rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, my Talmud teacher, Rabbi Avram Israel Reisner (right), came to me for some consultation. He knew I was tech savvy and interested in the Internet. It was 1998 and, as a member of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (“the Law Committee”), he was working on a teshuvah (Jewish legal opinion) about whether it was permissible to convene a minyan (prayer quorum) in the virtual world. Specifically, could one recite the Mourner’s Kaddish while taking part in a minyan that was convened virtually, over the Internet or through video-conferencing?

I was very much interested in discussing the issues surrounding a virtual minyan with Rabbi Reisner — both the halakhic ramifications and the technological issues. A year prior, as a college senior, I had written about the globalization of Judaism as a result of the Internet Age, and this was no doubt one way in which the concept of “community” in Jewish life would change as a result of innovations in technology and broadband communications.

Rabbi Reisner’s teshuva “Wired to the Kadosh Baruch Hu,” in which he concluded that “a minyan may not be constituted over the Internet, an audio- or video-conference, or any other medium of long distance communication,” passed by a majority vote in March 2001. All teshuvot of the Conservative Movement’s Law Committee are only considered recommendations, and thus I’m certain there are some who are reciting Kaddish for loved ones in virtual minyanim.

In fact, my teacher Rabbi Hayim Herring (left), wrote an article in The New York Jewish Week detailing the story of a “rogue media minyan.” His article titled “Challenges Of An Open-Source Age,” could have just as easily been called “Davening in the Digial Age.” Much has changed since everyone got high-speed Intenet connections at home and work, text messaging and e-mail on our phones are as common as sneezing, and video conferencing with friends in other continents is no longer challenging. Hayim writes:

About three years ago I received a call from a stranger who had a heartfelt dilemma. He wanted my opinion about whether digital davening with a minyan would fulfill his obligation to say Kaddish for a parent who had just died. He was concerned that saying Kaddish at his synagogue every day was not feasible and wanted to dedicate some days to gather a minyan via the Web. If so, should he ask his synagogue for help to sponsor a digital minyan? I vaguely recall making a comment about the idea being worth exploring and referred him to his congregational rabbi.

So much has changed since that telephone call, and today’s open-source environment, where information is increasingly open, available and less controlled, has led to a big leadership dilemma. Let’s imagine how this digital davening dilemma might play out today. The rabbi who gets the call may be empathetic but may discourage the idea, explaining the high value of being together in a community. A week later, the ritual director, quite concerned, asks the rabbi if he has heard about “the rogue media minyan.” The rabbi is surprised to learn that after the congregant called him, he contacted 50 friends (Facebook, Twitter, texting — pick your social media method), inviting them to be a part of digital davening group, so that he can say kaddish a few days a week. Some of the congregant’s friends are members of the same congregation; others are from across the country. He is quickly able to form a minyan. He and his friends use an electronic platform which enables them to webcast the service so that everyone can see and hear one another.

The rabbi meets with the congregant, perplexed by his behavior. Didn’t the congregant believe in the value of community? Now the congregant is confused. He explains that it was precisely the rabbi’s comments about community that prompted him to contact some of his father’s friends from out of town to participate in a Web-based minyan in his father’s memory. He says it was particularly meaningful to him to also have fellow congregants volunteer, especially those who would otherwise never participate in the synagogue’s daily minyan. It was this expanded notion of what community meant to the congregant that motivated him to act.

Now let’s fast forward to a year later. Within the year, two other members of the bricks-and-mortar congregation, who are also members of the digital davening group, lose a loved one. They don’t remember to inform the rabbi because they are already a part of the digital minyan, a satisfying experience for them. In fact, other people from across the country who have no original connection to the group are participating in it because the digital davening story went viral, and digital davening groups sprang up across the country and also spread to other countries.

The synagogue community is divided over their value, but these media minyanim continue to grow. This illustration is about rabbis and synagogues, but you can imagine how it can be rewritten for any Jewish setting.

There really is so much potential for spreading Jewish education across the globe using the Internet. Esther Kustanowitz is helping promote the JewishTVNetwork.com’s live Kol Nidre service. It will be broadcast online this Yom Kippur for the many Jews who are unable to get to a synagogue (or due to the economy they can’t afford membership). By joining this Kol Nidre service online, through JewishTVNetwork.com, they engage in their Jewish identity and connect to the Jewish calendar in a way that is accessible, affordable, non-alienating and convenient. The service is broadcast from Nashuva in Los Angeles, and is led by Rabbi Naomi Levy. The service will be accessible (and you can view last year’s recorded service) at JewishTVNetwork.com/highHolidays. There is actually a live band for Kol Nidre.

In addition to serving those Jews who are home-bound or cannot afford High Holy Day tickets, it is also a valuable resource for those Jews who are merely interested in seeing a different type of service. Maybe they would never attend a synagogue in which a live band played Kol Nidrei, but they might like to watch it for the experience.

Judaism is a several thousand-years-old religion and culture that has evolved over time. In this multimedia, high-speed communication, open-source age we are now living in, we must allow Judaism to adapt to these times by embracing new modes of communication and new concepts of community. Open-source Judaism will bolster the global Jewish community through shared ideas, collaboration, and best practices. Additionally, it will no doubt alter the long-held notions we’ve had about what constitutes such things as a minyan. Just as the Jewish people have figured out ways to strike a healthy balance between the Tradition and the innovations of modernity in the past generations, so too our generation will strike the right balance today.

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

Ruth Messinger

Sometimes newspaper editors have to admit they got it wrong — or that their words were not clear enough and led to misunderstanding. Such was the case when Andrew Silow Carroll (editor-in-chief of the New Jersey Jewish News) wrote about Ruth Messinger’s speech to graduates of the Jewish Theological Seminary this past May.

Messinger (right) is the president of the American Jewish World Service and delivered an amazing commencement address at JTS, which is available as an audio file on the JTSA.org website. I first met Ruth Messinger during my final year of rabbinical studies at JTS when I invited her to speak to my fellow rabbinical students as part of a program I created called “Visions of the Jewish Future.” As president of the rabbinical school’s student organization I thought it would be beneficial to hear from some visionaries in the American Jewish community from outside of the Seminary’s gates.

Silow-Carroll wrote about Messinger’s speech in his paper, but Messinger wasn’t thrilled with the way he characterized it. His column was mostly complimentary, but he suggested that she had gone too far in favoring non-Jewish causes over challenges closer to home.

Upon reading the column, Messinger was hurt and requested a face-to-face meeting with Silow-Carroll in which she explained the many Jewish projects at AJWS and touted the new Web resource On1Foot.org, an on-line compendium of rabbinic and contemporary texts on social justice. In my opinion, she really didn’t need to defend the work of her organization in this way. She should have merely mentioned the humanitarian work AJWS provides to the developing world and explained to Silow-Carroll that this is a very Jewish act.

In a follow-up column Silow-Carroll (left) acknowledged that he “hadn’t been aware of the Jewish learning that infused AJWS and should have asked. I also remembered that the Jewish world is big enough and rich enough to work on many levels, in many circles, in service of the local and the global. Those who would narrow the Jewish mission risk losing non-Jewish allies, young Jews interested in this kind of work, and the opportunity to live Jewish responsibility to its fullest.”

At the end of his column, Silow-Carroll explains that his meeting with Ruth Messinger prompted him to deliver a d’var Torah at his newspaper’s board meeting (something that hadn’t been done in a long time). He found a good d’var Torah at On1Foot.org.

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

United Synagogue Moves to New Digs and Gets Some International Neighbors

Rapaport House - 155 Fifth Avenue - Manhattan - Rabbi Jason Miller's BlogIn December 2006, I was one of the first to post about the announced sale of the headquarters building for United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), the congregational arm of Conservative Judaism worldwide. Well, now it has been reported that USCJ sold the Rapaport House (155 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan) for $26.5 million and acquired new headquarters on two floors at 820 Second Avenue. I’m sure this was quite a return on investment for United Synagogue since it acquired 155 Fifth Avenue (pictured) some three decades ago.

USCJ plans to move into its new location in early 2008, but what is most interesting is who its neighbors in the building will be. The article at GlobeSt.com lists both Trinidad & Tobago‘s and Peru‘s permanent missions to the UN as well as the government of Croatia. I did a quick web search, however, and also learned that the permanent missions to the UN for Nepal, Nicaragua, Micronesia, Korea, Liberia, and Madagascar also rent space in this building. And, as if that’s not enough global representation to make things interesting, Syria‘s UN mission is also based in the building. In fact, there have been numerous rallies in front of this building demanding that Syria release Israeli hostage Gilad Shalit.

Furthermore, the United Nations Federal Credit Union now occupies floors 10 and 11 — the two floors that will soon be USCJ’s home, so the UN will become United Synagogue’s temporary tenant until it relocates.

So not only will the international leaders of Conservative Judaism be sharing their elevator rides with the Peruvian ambassador (USY Peru/Israel Pilgrimage anyone?), they will also be the landlord to the United Nations’ Bank. Interesting!

And I hear there’s also a strong possibility that the Syrian Arab Republic can use United Synagogue’s restroom key on all Jewish holidays when USCJ’s offices are closed (sounds like an even trade if Israel can keep the Golan Heights). This could be the first step toward peace in the Middle East. I’d love to be a fly on the wall in that lobby.

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

Ukraine Experience

From the American Joint Distribution Committee‘s website

Young Adults in Ukraine Inspire College Students from Michigan

From August 22-31, 2005, 15 students from University of Michigan Hillel traveled to Kiev, Kharkov, Sumy, and Konotop, Ukraine, where they joined their peers from Kharkov Hillel and the Jewish Youth Association to paint apartments of elderly Jews in need and to refurbish Jewish community facilities. Below, Sol, a Senior at the University of Michigan, reflects on his experience:Rabbi Jason Miller - Ukraine, JDC

It may have been our group’s 6th rendition of the Yiddish classic Tumbalalika that week, but we were still singing it just as loudly, clapping and dancing hand-in-hand with the elderly with the same exuberance and energy as the first five times.

Although our group — comprised of 15 students and two staff members from University of Michigan Hillel — may have arrived in the Ukraine with the lofty vision of inspiring and educating the local Jewish community, what we soon realized was that the locals would become our teachers.

Over the course of our ten day stay in Ukraine as part of a service program sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), Michigan Hillel, and Kharkov Hillel, and financially supported by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Mandell L. and Madeleine H. Berman Foundation, and others, we witnessed something that exceeded all of our expectations: the revival of a Jewish community, whose core is a group of young, bright, and promising individuals. Personally, as a child of Russian immigrants to the United States, it was immensely valuable for me to see this group of individuals that are not only leading their local communities in rebuilding, but led us, active students at University of Michigan, on a journey through Ukrainian-Jewish history past and present.

This educational and inspirational journey was one full of emotion: from saying Kaddish (Mourner’s prayer) for the hundreds of thousands of Jews massacred by Nazis in 1941 at Babi Yar to reading from a Torah for the first time since its arrival over five years ago at the revived Jewish community of Konotop.

Yet, the highs and lows of emotion we felt throughout this journey were fitting for a Jewish community that has suffered through so much, yet amazingly persevered to this day. This once vibrant Jewish community has suffered through mass murder at the hands of the Nazis along with repression under Soviet rule. But since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Ukrainian independence of 1991, the Jewish community has experienced an oft-turbulent path to revival. We were lucky to get a glimpse of that revival: hearing a student a Capella group sing Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem, interacting with kids at a special needs program at the brand-new JDC sponsored JCC, and picking potatoes for charity at a Jewish cooperative farm.

Rabbi Jason Miller - Ukraine, JDCWhile it is clear that these young Ukrainians left a lasting impact on us, it is also for certain that our being there, the simple notion that 15 young Americans would travel all the way to Ukraine just to show support for its budding community, meant a lot. Regardless of what one may consider the best future of Ukrainian Jewry — whether it be mass immigration to Israel or a steadfast commitment to rebuilding their community locally from the ground up — it would be erroneous to consider their community dead. Witnessing a newly reopened and refurbished synagogue, a boisterous and smile-laden Shabbat service and dinner, and even a young and rising Jewish Ukrainian rapper, one thing is more crystal-clear than Ukrainian vodka: this community is alive. Alive and dancing.

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