Sam Berns, Progeria and the Dave Matthews Band

2013 ended with the tragic passing of a Jewish boy named Sam who inspired millions and 2014 has begun with the tragic passing of a Jewish boy named Sam who inspired millions.

On the same cold, grey December day on which my own family buried my 11-day-old nephew, the Sommer family buried their 8-year-old boy Samuel Sommer who succumbed to the refractory acute myeloid leukemia he had been diagnosed with a year-and-a-half prior. By some bizarre coincidence not only did Rabbi Phyllis Sommer and Rabbi Michael Sommer bury their son on that same day, but also at the same Jewish cemetery that my family had said goodbye to my nephew Rylan Foster Gelb only hours earlier. Superman Sam’s fight to survive and beat the leukemia was journaled beautifully on the blog Rabbi Phyllis maintained during their challenging journey. And now, 30 days have passed since Superman Sam was laid to rest and the blog continues to inspire so many.


This past Friday, another Sam succumbed to a disease. Sam Berns, the Jewish teen who lived with Progeria passed away after so many learned his story from the HBO documentary “Life According to Sam.” I watched this documentary last night, and knowing that Sam had just died, I was overcome with tears. Sam’s parents Dr. Leslie Gordon and Dr. Scott Berns worked tirelessly throughout Sam’s much too short life committed to curing this disease. Progeria is the same disease that my teacher Rabbi Harold Kushner’s son died from and was the impetus for his book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”. As is evidenced by the film, Sam’s parents weren’t only passionate about finding a cure for Progeria for their own son’s sake, but for all of the children throughout the world who age too quickly and end up dying as they reach their teenage years.

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Being Honest About Ritual Circumcision

I don’t get squeamish watching a bris take place. And I’ve seen my fair share. However, I have been getting squeamish lately over the many news items concerning the legality and morality of ritual circumcision, a required Jewish life-cycle event for thousands of years.

When discussing brit milah (Jewish ritual circumcision), I believe it is important to be open and honest. I firmly believe that this mitzvah (commandment) is of paramount importance to the Jewish people and that we must ensure that it is done safely throughout the world to ensure that it continues for generations to come.

iStockPhoto

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently published a report revealing that a total of 11 newborn males were infected by the herpes simplex virus in New York City between November 2000 and December 2011. Of these 11 cases, the parents of 6 of the newborns acknowledged that the mohel (ritual circumcisor) had performed metzitza b’peh during the bris.  Metzitza b’peh is when the mohel places his mouth directly on the newly circumcised penis and sucks blood away from the wound. The vast majority of physicians have ruled that this aspect of the brit milah ritual must be forbidden for the obvious health risks involved.

Many people presume that only the most ultra-Orthodox communities still include metzitza b’peh in the bris ceremony. However, this month I heard of a bris that took place at Keter Torah Synagogue, a local Sephardic congregation in West Bloomfield, Michigan in which the mohel in fact performed metzitza b’peh. It is imperative that Jewish physicians and other Jewish professionals in the health care industry as well as rabbis insist that metzitza b’peh is no longer practiced. The health risks are evident and with Jewish ritual circumcision under attack, it is unwise to allow an unhealthy and dangerous aspect of the ritual to persist.

Just one year ago, there was a ballot measure to ban circumcision in San Francisco. That measure would have outlawed circumcision on males younger than 18, except in cases of medical necessity. No religious exemptions would be permitted according to this measure. While that measure was shot down, a German court this week banned the circumcision of young boys for religious reasons. This ban on ritual circumcision applies to the Cologne region of Germany. According to MSNBC:

The court in the western city of Cologne handed down the decision on Tuesday in the case of a doctor who was prosecuted for circumcising a four-year-old Muslim boy. The doctor circumcised the boy in November 2010 and gave him four stitches, the Guardian reported. When the boy started bleeding two days later, his parents took him to Cologne’s University hospital, where officials called police. The doctor was ultimately acquitted on the grounds that he had not broken a law. The court ruled that involuntary religious circumcision should be made illegal because it could inflict serious bodily harm on people who had not consented to it. The ruling said boys who consciously decided to be circumcised could have the operation. No age restriction was given, or any more specific details.

The Central Council of Jews in Germany called the ruling an “unprecedented and dramatic intrusion” of the right to religious freedom and an “outrageous and insensitive” act.

Several Conservative Jewish groups including Masorti Olami, Masorti Europe and the Rabbinical Assembly of Europe have joined with the Central Council of Jews in Germany in condemning the decision of the district Court in Cologne. In a joint statement, they explained:

The circumcision of 8 day old male babies remains an important and meaningful rite in the lives of Jews all over the world. No other country has outlawed circumcision and this new legal decision impinges upon the religious freedom of Germany’s citizens be they Jewish or Muslim and the rights of other parents who wish to circumcise their sons.

A brit milah, as the circumcision ceremony is called in Hebrew, is one of the first mitzvot (or commandments) that God asks of Abraham. Just as Abraham observed the commandment, so too have his Jewish descendants over 1000s of years. While the Masorti movement consistently balances the needs of modernity against the needs of halacha or Jewish Law, there is no overwhelming proof that the circumcision of newborn boys causes any “irreversible damage against the body” as stated in the German court’s decision. On the contrary, medical research has shown that circumcision can reduce the risk of HIV infection, penile cancer and other urinary tract diseases.

The over 1.7 Million people in the 900 congregations and organizations in 45 countries represented by the Masorti (Conservative) Worldwide Movement call upon the Government of Germany to quickly work to reverse this grievous course of curtailing religious freedoms and dictating fundamental actions of faith communities.

Source: etsy.com

It is my belief that a war is being waged on ritual circumcision. In order for it to be preserved for future generations there must be compromise. We must be honest that it is an odd religious ritual in the 21st century, but it is a core part of both the Jewish and Muslim religions. In order to try to curtail some of the controversy surrounding brit milah, I propose the following:

1) Any individual who will perform a brit milah must have a signed certificate that they went through a course of training in which health and safety guidelines were learned.

2) Any individual who will perform a brit milah must sign an agreement that metzitza b’peh will not be performed under any circumstances as it endangers the livelihood of the infant boy.

It must also be acknowledged that ritual circumcision is a medical procedure and it is unique in that it is most often performed in a living room or synagogue. I would love it if there were some certification program in which mohalim had to be re-certified every ten years to ensure compliance. Brit milah is often learned through an apprenticeship and there’s nothing to ensure that an elderly mohel is still physically able to perform the ritual adequately.

Finally, we must acknowledge that the idea of friends and family gathered in a living room watching a newborn baby undergo a medical procedure is not for everyone. Conceding that brit milah should be performed in a hospital would only encourage parents to have the circumcision performed before the required eighth day and that is not advisable. Rather, mohalim should give the option of performing the brit milah in a more private setting and then the religious ceremony can take place for the larger assembly. While this would alter the traditional nature of the brit milah ceremony, it would also guarantee that there’s an understanding that the ritual is also a medical procedure that deserves both privacy and a safe and sanitary environment.

By continuing to pretend that there’s nothing odd about a newborn baby boy having a surgical procedure in a living room in front of dozens who eagerly wait for the bagel and lox spread to open is a mistake. We must acknowledge that this is a unique religious ritual in the 21st century. We must admit that there is some pain for the infant, but that it is not long lasting (an anesthetic should be encouraged but not required). We must ensure that there is some uniform compliance on the part of the practitioner (mohel) for the sake of the health and safety of the baby. And we must insist on a complete ban on metzitza b’peh with no exceptions.

With these guidelines in place, we will be better positioned to counter any legislation — whether in San Francisco or in Germany — that could put Jewish ritual circumcision in jeopardy.

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

Children and Technology: The Good, the Bad and the Dangerous

Versions of this appeared in the Detroit Jewish News and on the Savvy Auntie website

As our society becomes even more dependent on technology, we will have to continue adapting to the technology innovations that continue to amaze us. The constant advances in everything from mobile gadgets to our household appliances will force us to change the way we currently do everyday tasks. If you need help figuring out how to use any of the new technology, just ask your kids.

Joking aside, children adapt quickest to new technology because they don’t really have to adapt much. Swiping on an iPad screen, controlling the Xbox 360 Kinect videogame console through virtual reality, or starting the family’s washing machine from a mobile app seem to come naturally for children. In the same way that parents joked in the 1980s that they needed their children to program the VCR, today’s parents marvel at how comfortable their children are with new technology.

Children as young as four years old are using the Internet, mobile devices, and gaming consoles. In some cases this is a good thing, but there are certain risk factors that parents should be aware of. While technology can be used for positive educational purposes, there are also serious physical and psychological concerns.

A recent Nielson study finds that in households owning a tablet computer and with children under 12, 70% of children use the tablet. 77% of these children are playing games, while 57% use the tablet for educational purposes. The rest of the most common responses include 55% of these children using the tablet for entertainment purposes; 43% to watch television and/or movies; and 41% to keep the child occupied while at a restaurant or event.

Many parents report that letting their children use tablet computers like the iPad can be very helpful when waiting at the doctor’s office, on long car rides, and before the meal arrives at restaurants. There are also advantages to having children do their homework on the iPad. Julie Feldman of Farmington Hills, Michigan explains that her daughter Emily (a 4th grader at Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit) is excited to come home and finish her advanced math homework on the iPad using the application Wowzers. Feldman, a registered dietician, also sees advantages in technology for children concerned about their nutrition. “My young clients are able to track their daily food intake with an app making it much easier to monitor what they eat.”

There are, however, concerns that some children are spending too much time in front of a digital screen. When children spend too many hours watching television, playing video games, surfing the Web, and using a tablet, they are likely not getting enough exercise or face-to-face social interaction. Dr. Daniel Klein, a children’s psychologist in Metro Detroit, says he sees many young patients who are spending too much time using technology by themselves and not enough time playing outside and interacting with their peers. He works with parents and provides guidance to help monitor their children’s computer and gaming activities. There are also fears that children will see things in video games or online that will have negative effects on their behavior and can lead to anxiety disorders, violent behavior, or hyperactivity.

Feldman believes that parents should determine what technology they allow their children to use based on the child’s maturity level. She gave her daughter a cell phone when she was 8-years-old, but understands that this might be too young for other children. “It’s very dependent on the child,” she says. “My daughter spends many hours at dance classes and needs to be able to communicate with us. Having a cell phone and being able to text us is anxiety reducing for her.” She also has become more cautious about her 3 ½-year-old son’s video gaming activity as she has noticed that he is acting out violent scenes and shooting with pretend guns after playing some realistic video games.

All parents should be aware of their children’s activity online and put monitoring software in place to ensure safe experiences. If a child is using a computer, parents should ensure that adult content does not come up in search results. Google and other popular search engines on the Web have SafeSearch features to filter adult content from search results. Violent scenes can also be avoided with such applications as NetNanny, which provides Internet controls.

In addition to psychological and emotional concerns, there are also physical dangers when children use technology. Dr. Daniel Rontal, an ENT at the Rontal-Akervall Clinic, notes that with the increased popularity of portable music devices among children comes an increased health risk to children’s ears. “Some children don’t realize that something is broken on their ear buds and they scratch their inner ears,” he cautions. “There is also the danger of noise induced hearing loss and that is something that isn’t even realized until years later. It won’t show up for 15-20 years, but we’re seeing more people with early hearing loss in their mid 30’s because of listening to music which is generally being played louder than it was in the 80s and 90s.”

“Kids in general feel that they’re bullet proof,” Rontal adds. “The white iPod ear buds just sit in the ear and those are okay, but the ones that go into the ear canal, called sound isolating headphones, can definitely cause infection and scratch the ear.”

Kidz Gear offers wired headphones for children designed specifically for the Apple iPod, iPhone and iPad. The Kidz Gear headphones feature unique KidzControl Volume Limiting Technology that provides a safe listening experience while helping to protect children’s hearing. This technology delivers a safe volume limited listening experience for children that is always on and limits the volume levels to 80dB and 90dB.

New technology helps us be more productive and improves our lives, but we have to learn to use it safely and in healthy ways. So too, as adults, we must be responsible and monitor the way our children utilize technology. In some cases, technology seems to be make things worse. For example, overuse of computers and mobile devices can curtail important interpersonal communication and can hinder children from developing the skills necessary to deal with others in real life.

There are real benefits to children using technology as well. Reports abound that demonstrate how technology is bolstering children’s learning experiences and complementing the education they receive in school. Some technology is even making it easier for children with developmental disabilities. The bottom line is that, like anything, there are positive and negative implications to the latest, greatest technology innovations. There are risks to children using technology without the proper supervision and moderation. The best thing that parents can do is become well trained in the technology their children are using so that they can monitor it best. That will ensure a positive, safe, and healthy technology experience for children.

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

Rabbi Seeks Young Wife for Cheaper Health Insurance

When I first read the headline of this NPR blog post (“For Love Or Insurance? Rabbi Seeks Young Wife To Lower Health Costs”) I couldn’t even imagine what this was all about. It turns out there’s a rabbi in Florida who needs better health insurance coverage and is looking for a young wife to make it happen.

Turns out that Rabbi Craig Ezring, a nursing home chaplain, was able to get decent insurance before his wife died. He and his wife established a small corporation to procure health insurance, but when his wife died four years ago his rates soared 38 percent to over $18,000 just to cover him. The 56-year-old rabbi comes from a very rabbinic family. His father Abraham Ezring is an Orthodox rabbi in Florida and all of his brothers are rabbis as well, including Rabbi Murray Ezring, a Conservative rabbi in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The NPR blog post isn’t the first time Rabbi Craig Ezring has made news. In 2005, his funny yet insightful “Dear Abby” letter was published. Ezring letter titled “Oy Vey! Rabbi Is Exposed to Patient’s Discomfort,” told the story of how Ezring, as a chaplain, would visit hospital patients wearing a three-piece suit. One patient, he explained, felt terribly uncomfortable lying there “in a hospital gown with her tuchas sticking out” while the rabbi sat there in a three-piece suit. So, Ezring went to the nurse’s station and changed into a hospital gown. The patient was then relaxed enough to share her concerns with the rabbi/chaplain.

He concludes, “The visit took a little longer than usual, and when I finished our session with a prayer for healing, I rose from the chair. As I did, the sound as my thighs ripped themselves from the Naugahyde brought a huge smile to both our faces. I was laughing so hard I forgot to hold the back of the gown as I headed back down the hall — so I was exposed… Fortunately, the nurses had a sense of humor. One said, ‘Not a bad tush for a rabbi!'”

Rabbi Ezring explains in his “Dear Abby” letter that he learned an important lesson that day. Abby commends him for his sensitivity and creativity. She writes, “Your suit may have been off for her, but my hat is off to you for going the extra mile to make a difference in a sick woman’s life. Your method may have been unorthodox, but your message of healing far surpassed any fashion statement.”

Now back to the rabbi’s search for a young bride who will help lower his health insurance rates. From the NPR blog post:

When Rabbi Craig Ezring’s annual health insurance costs soared 38 percent this year to a whopping $18,636, he did more than just complain.

He went looking for a young wife.

For several years, the Boca Raton, Fla., rabbi had been getting coverage through a small corporation he formed with his wife. When she died four years ago, he thought the cost of his insurance coverage would drop. Instead it rose.

That’s partly because Ezring, 56, had a heart bypass surgery a couple of years ago. Nonetheless, he said he’s still quite healthy, and does ballroom and Latin dancing twice a week.

When he got his latest health insurance bill in August, Ezing said he almost had a heart attack.

An insurance broker told him his small business insurance rate is based on the age of the owner of the company. So, Ezring posted on his blog that he was looking for a younger woman who wouldn’t mind marrying him to help him get cheaper coverage.

“Give some thought to the possibility of marrying me … a good insurance plan is all I ask,” he wrote. “Okay there maybe one or two other things I ask for, but sadly, right now insurance has become a top priority.”

Ezring, a rabbi at several nursing homes and assisted living facilities in South Florida, said he’s had a few “comical offers” of marriage in response to his plea, including one asking if he wanted to move to South Carolina.

Ezring said his insurer, UnitedHealthcare, has been good to him: The company makes sure he gets services he needs and can see the doctors he wants. But with the latest rate hike, he feels like he’s working mostly just to afford his health coverage. He’s shopped for other policies, but other companies won’t offer him coverage.

When told that Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who vehemently opposes the federal health overhaul, is only paying about $400 a year for his state-subsidized health insurance, Ezring chuckled. “It would be lovely if everyone could pay that amount for really good insurance,” he said.

Rabbi Ezring seems like a pretty funny (and creative) guy. I wish him well in his quest to get less expensive health insurance, but even if he isn’t successful in that endeavor at least he was able to spread the word about how expensive medical coverage is in our country.

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

JTS Chef Joe Landa Wins on Food Network’s "Chopped!"

I learned a lot in rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary. I also managed to eat pretty well too. Right before I began my six-year tenure at the Seminary, a new company took over the food management operations in the cafeteria. From what I understand, Flik Independent Schools Dining took it up a notch. Rich Costas and his team had never run a kosher kitchen before, but they learned quickly how to serve three delicious meals a day and cater fancy events while adhering to the kosher laws.

The scrumptious food served at JTS might have been a well kept secret until last night. The Seminary’s executive chef Joe Landa was a big winner on the Food Network’s cooking competition show “Chopped!” Chef Joe’s been establishing his reputation as a creative culinary innovator for almost a quarter century.

Before becoming a champion on “Chopped!”, Chef Joe won the 2010 “Whole Grains Council” national recipe contest. He’s a certified personal fitness instructor with a passion for healthy living, physical endurance, and balanced nutrition. Chef Joe came to JTS in 2003 after many years as a chef at various restaurants in New York City.

As executive chef at JTS, Chef Joe helps serve about 600 customers per day. He’s responsible for the creative choices in the cafeteria line for three meals a day, plus all the catering requests. In addition to preparing meals for Seminary functions, Chef Joe will also cater weddings, conventions, Shabbat and holiday meals, and other events at the Seminary.

On last night’s episode of “Chopped!”, host Ted Allen challenged Chef Joe and three other chefs to create a three-course meal by using flour tortillas, English cucumbers, fresh fava beans and pickled beef tongue for the Appetizer round; pork rinds, galangal, purple kohlrabi and rabbit legs and thighs for the Entrée round; and lambe, chickpea flour, Asian pears, rose water syrup for the Dessert round. These were clearly not the typical kosher meals that Chef Joe is used to cooking up at the Seminary. That could be the reason he didn’t identify where he works; only stating that he’s an executive chef in Manhattan.

Chef Joe took home the $10,000 prize beating out the stiff competition made up of a sous chef at NYU Medical Center, a restaurateur in Brooklyn, and a restaurateur from Gramercy Park. While I’m not a foodie or a regular Food Network viewer (this was actually my first time watching anything on the Food Network), I found this show to be exhilarating. I can’t wait for the next time I’m in NYC to stop by the Seminary and sample some delicious offerings from Champion Chef Joe Landa. Congratulations Joe… even if it was far from kosher, you made the Seminary proud!

UPDATE: For those concerned about the overtly non-kosher fare that Chef Joe had to cook on the TV show, don’t worry because he was able to recreate a kosher version of that meal for cafeteria patrons of the Jewish Theological Seminary this past Wednesday. Here’s the announcement that went out to the Seminary community:

“Join our own “Chopped” champion, Chef Joe Landa, for his award winning menu selection as featured on his recent TV appearance on the Food Network. Chef Joe will be making a kosher version of his Chipotle and balsamic glazed pickled beef tongue tostada with ginger fava bean mash and English cucumber salsa. Come down to the JTS Dining Hall on Wednesday, June 29th at lunchtime!”

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

Clarifying Natalie Portman’s Hadassah Gift That Never Was

I pride myself on always trying to provide factual information on this blog. However, it has come to my attention that six years ago, in March 2005, I reposted a news report that the Jewish/Israeli actress Natalie Portman made a $50 million gift to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. I didn’t provide any of my own commentary on the post, but simply reposted a news report that had been published on several other websites, based on Israel’s Arutz7. A Google search still retrieves many of the original news reports of Portman’s supposed gift from 2005. Here is what the Arutz7 website report about Portman’s donation looked like back in 2005:

The operative word in the Arutz7 article above is “including,” insinuating that a total of $50 million was received including a “large donation” by Natalie Portman. That was misinterpreted when it was reposted on the NataliePortman.org blog (clip below):

Now, Natalie Portman has won an Oscar and is starring in several big box office films. She is also making headlines for standing up to Dior’s John Galliano and speaking out against his anti-Semitic slurs. Hadassah issued a statement last week praising the actress for her courageous stand. And then, I’m sure some Google searches by Hadassah staff and members turned up the various blog posts from 2005 about the $5 million gift that turns out to be a misunderstanding.

So, six years went by and no one seemed to question this erroneous donation? I did a little research and it turns out that a woman named Phyllis commented on a blog in April 2005, stating “she [Portman] didn’t donate $50 million personally-they received donations of $50 million and her donation was included in that re-read the article: ‘Jerusalem’s Hadassah hospital received a $50 million donation last week including a large donation from one of the people born there — famed Jewish actress Natalie Portman.”

Early this week, I began receiving emails from Hadassah staff members inquiring about this supposed donation. And then I received this message from Hadassah:

“This ‘story’ was originally misreported exactly six years ago this month when Hadassah announced it had raised $50 million in just two short years from quite a variety of sources for a new center for emergency medicine. Natalie Portman appeared at the event but did not contribute to the center. For some unknown reason, last week, people began to re-circulate the very old, very wrong version of the story claiming that Portman had made a $50 million donation. Hadassah would be grateful if you would post a correction to this post. This was obviously no fault of yours. But these things quickly take on a life of their own. Thanks very much.”

So, I am hereby retracting the misinformation that was published on this blog in March 2005. Natalie Portman has been a strong supporter of Hadassah Hospital and I’m sure she will continue to be, however, she never made a $50 million donation to the expanded emergency trauma unit.

I’ll conclude this post by reminding everyone that the new Sarah Wetsman Davidson Tower at Hadassah Hospital, named for the mother of the late Jewish philanthropist Bill Davidson of Detroit, is still in need of funds and I encourage everyone to contribute to this important cause.

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

My Rabbi Saved My Life

This past March, around the same time I began to blog for The New York Jewish Week, a banner ad on the Jewish paper’s website caught my attention.

The ad featured a head-shot of a man and the text “My Rabbi Saved My Life.” First, I thought “what a great ad since it grabs your attention and makes you want to click through to see what it’s all about.”

Clicking on the link took me to a website for The New York State Diabetes Campaign. There, I learned that this was part of a Faith Fights Diabetes campaign aimed at religious leaders and encouraging them to speak with their congregations about diabetes and general health. On the Faith Fights Diabetes campaign website, there are seven religious leaders including a guru, rabbi, priest, minister, pastor, and two imams (one male and one female).

My father was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes when I was two-years-old, so this is certainly a cause that I am directly connected to and one that has my full support. But I also wondered whether it is the role of clergy to get involved in the medical lives of those in our congregations.

This subject truly resonated with me recently when the spouse of one of my congregants asked me to intervene in his wife’s eating habits. He felt that she, a diabetic, was eating poorly and putting herself at a great health risk. I thought of the Faith Fights Diabetes campaign and how rabbis (and other faith leaders) really could play a positive role in the health lives of our congregants. When I served an internship at a large synagogue in New Jersey, we had two congregational nurses on staff who served important roles for synagogue members. There, the rabbi might refer a congregant to one of the nurses, but I really don’t see a reason why the rabbi himself cannot speak openly about the importance of eating right, exercising and getting regular medical exams.

The campaign encourages clergy to learn how to fight the diabetes epidemic in congregations. It recommends that a poster about diabetes is hung in public areas of the church, temple, mosque, or faith-based organization. Some practical tips for clergy include serving healthier food at congregational events and discussing diabetes in a sermon (sample sermons are on the website).

As spiritual leaders, we have great influence on our congregants. Why shouldn’t we use our pulpit to promote healthy living and ensure that the people we care about are informed about Diabetes?

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

Conservative Rabbis Must Exercise

Almost six years ago, when I became a Conservative rabbi, I knew there were certain expectations placed on me by my new professional organization, the International Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism (the RA). Specifically, they expected that I would follow the few rules they had or face expulsion from the Assembly. These rules were:

  1. Not officiating at a commitment ceremony or wedding between two members of the same sex;
  2. Not recognizing patrilineal descent (Jewish lineage from the father instead of the mother);
  3. Not officiating at an interfaith wedding;
  4. Not officiating at a wedding in which a divorced bride didn’t have a Jewish bill of divorce (get) from her ex-husband, or in which a divorced groom hadn’t given his ex-wife a get.

Well, with the acceptance of a religious ruling allowing Conservative rabbis to officiate at same-sex commitment ceremonies three years ago, it looks like #1 is no longer on the books.

Further, studies have shown that some 80% of Conservative Jews recognize people as Jewish who are the offspring of Jewish dads, but not Jewish moms (just as the Reform movement has officially done since 1983). My sense is that this will be the next significant change in Conservative Judaism, so rule #2 can’t be far from being passé too.

Privately, I’ve heard there are Conservative rabbis officiating at interfaith weddings under the RA’s radar screen. However, from my vantage point, most rabbis still firmly hold by rules #3 and #4 above.

The one RA rule I hadn’t foreseen when I became a rabbi is that I must agree to stay in good shape and maintain a healthy diet. So, I was surprised to get an e-mail earlier this week from RA executive vice-president Rabbi Julie Schonfeld and two marathon-running rabbinic colleagues telling me to get to the gym pronto. Although, I must say that I do agree with the Shalem Campaign, urging us rabbis to make fitness a part of our daily lives and to eat healthy. The campaign, which is based on the President’s Fitness Challenge, was picked up by the JTA in an article titled “Eat right and exercise, Conservative rabbis told.”

At least now when I’m spotted at the gym in the middle of a workday, I can just explain that I’m following orders and trying to be a good rabbi.

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

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 | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Pancreatic Cancer

I haven’t written anything on this blog since the end of last year. There have been several topics I planned to cover, but just never got around to the actual writing part of it. I have also been preoccupied recently with my uncle’s condition. My Uncle Jerry, with whom I was extremely close throughout my life, lost his battle to pancreatic cancer on February 21, 2009. He was diagnosed, at 54-years-old, a little more than three months prior.

Pancreatic cancer gets much less attention than other cancers and the research for pancreatic cancer is funded at far lower levels than other forms of cancer even though nearly as many people die of pancreatic cancer as breast cancer. As a result of my uncle’s death, our family has discovered an amazing organization called The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network or Pancan, where we have set up a fund in his memory.

Pancreatic cancer is so deadly because it is difficult to detect, early to metastasize, and resistant to most treatments. Perhaps with several celebrities currently battling Pancreatic Cancer, the disease will attract more attention and funding. Actor Patrick Swayze, former Apple CEO Steve Jobs, and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg are all battling the disease. Opera great Luciano Pavarotti and actor Michael Landon both died of pancreatic cancer, as did Prof. Randy Pausch, co-author of The Last Lecture.

Just yesterday, it was reported that former Detroit Pistons coach Chuck Daly (left), a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The 78-year-old is beloved here in Detroit for leading the Pistons to two NBA championships (1989 and 1990) and a U.S. gold medal in basketball (1992). In addition to being one of the greatest coaches in the history of professional basketball, Daly has always been known as a true gentleman.

I wish Coach Daly the best in his fight against this deadly disease. All I can do is hope that more people, especially our elected officials, open their eyes to this horrific killer and give it more attention and more funding for research. In the meantime, my heart goes out to all those who have lost loved ones to Pancreatic Cancer. I can now, unfortunately, speak from experience and say how devastating the feeling is.

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