MSU Hillel: If You Build It

Like many rabbis I’m often asked why I chose to become a rabbi. People are interested to know if there was a pivotal moment in my upbringing that steered me to the rabbinate. In responding to that question I’ve always cited my years as a student leader at Michigan State University Hillel.

A few weekends ago I spent a memorable weekend in East Lansing my eldest child and attended Shabbat festivities at MSU Hillel. It was the first Shabbat I experienced on the MSU campus since my graduation from the university almost fifteen years ago. It proved to be a nostalgic weekend for me and one in which I truly gave thanks for the many gifts that MSU Hillel provided for me.

My son in front of the MSU Hillel building earlier this month.

Early on in my college career there was a fire at the Hillel building. The structure was already old and in need of remodeling. After the fire, students attending events at Hillel would complain of the horrible smell from the fire and water damage. There was no doubt that a new Hillel building was sorely needed.

I became a student leader at MSU Hillel almost immediately. During “Welcome Week” my freshman year I was asked by the president of Hillel if I would be interested in taking a vacant position on the Hillel board. I had served as president of my synagogue youth group as a high school senior and just returned from a summer in Israel on a teen tour so I was eager to get involved in Jewish life on campus. I replied that I was interested and the rest was history.

I jumped right in and soon found myself spending a lot of time at Hillel. During my sophomore year I co-led the student board and was chairman of the Jewish Student Union. So after the fire I had a seat at the table discussing building plans with leaders of the institution’s “adult” board, architects, Jewish Federation leaders and donors. I recall a Federation executive cautioning me not to get excited about seeing the imagined new Hillel building while I was still a student, but that I would one day take pride in knowing I had something to do with its creation.

That lesson from the Federation executive proved true. The invitation to attend Shabbat dinner a few weeks ago was to honor MSU Hillel on the tenth anniversary of its Lester & Jewell Morris Hillel Jewish Student Center. Leading Shabbat evening services on the second floor that night I looked out at the very young looking faces in the congregation and flashed back to the many times I led services as a college student. I looked into the beautiful library room where one student was busily studying and recalled the thousands of hours I spent sitting in the old library of Hillel cramming for final exams, exploring ancient Jewish texts, and writing my admission essays for rabbinical school.

Following services that night my son asked why there were so many students at Shabbat dinner. I explained that Hillel was the only place on campus for students to enjoy a hot, kosher Shabbat meal. I told him how important Hillel is for Jewish students on campus. And then I told him how important Hillel was for me. Without MSU Hillel I don’t know where I would be today.

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

The Cap & Gown Section

I’ve long had a love-hate relationship with the Detroit Jewish News‘ “Cap & Gown Yearbook.” Started in the late 1980’s, the JN includes an entire section in one of its late-May issues devoted to the “best and brightest” high school graduates in the area.

Before I comment on this year’s change in the submission rules, allow me to explain the love-hate relationship I’ve had. [Full disclosure: I cannot include the Cap & Gown issue on my CV.]

I loved the Cap & Gown issue when I was working at the University of Michigan Hillel Foundation in Ann Arbor. At the end of each graduating senior’s bio (AKA “Brag Paragraph”), it listed where they were headed for college. The vast majority were either going to Michigan or Michigan State with a couple handfuls of Ivy Leaguers. Each year when the Cap & Gown section was published, I immediately tore out the pages from the newspaper and marked the incoming class of Jewish kids at U-M with my yellow highlighter. These would be the first freshmen I’d welcome to campus in the fall. Their high school accomplishments were listed right there. I knew who the Jewish youth group leaders were and which of these 18-year-olds had volunteerism in their DNA. The Jewish News was doing my reconnaissance work for me.

Working with high school students is a different story. They are already under such pressure to succeed in high school that making the cut for the Jewish High School Academic Hall of Fame only adds to the stress. Over the past couple decades, the standards for inclusion in the Cap & Gown section have changed. When I was in high school (Andover Class of 1994 for those of you scoring at home), seniors needed a minimum grade point average (GPA) and had to be chosen by their school. That meant it was much more difficult to be one of the top Semites at predominantly Jewish schools like West Bloomfield, Bloomfield Hills Andover, and North Farmington than it was at say Birmingham Seaholm, Detroit Country Day, or any of the Walled Lake schools (this was the 90s after all). In fact, I remember one of my peers from West Bloomfield High School complaining to the Jewish News that she should have been included even though her GPA wasn’t at the newspaper’s standard. She was the editor of the school paper, president of her Jewish youth group, and had a handful of other notable credentials. The paper caved and printed her bio the week after the Cap & Gown issue alongside her irate letter complaining of the unfair selection process.

In the past decade, the standards have eased and there are a lot more graduates included in the Cap & Gown issue. Only 40-some Jewish teens were honored in the first Cap & Gown Yearbook in the late 1980’s, but last year’s section included 224. Even with that many star teens included, there are still many talented and accomplished teens who are left on the sidelines.

As the paper explained in a March 2010 blurb: “[E]very year, whatever criteria the newspaper used to determine eligibility would leave out many deserving students. This year, the Jewish News is inviting every Jewish student who is graduating from a Michigan high school to be part of our new Cap & Gown Yearbook. Publisher Arthur Horwitz said, “We’ve grown from several dozen entries to well over 200 of our community’s high school seniors who attained a qualifying grade point average. It has been one of our most popular issues and a keepsake.”

So, the question is: Why after 20 years of a competitive process (on varying levels), has the Detroit Jewish News decided to include every graduating Jewish high school student into the Cap & Gown Yearbook? Here are some theories:

1) It’s the Economy Stupid: It’s no secret that print media is in hospice care. Newspapers are ending home delivery and magazines are closing (Newsweek was put up for sale just yesterday). The Jewish News has laid off most of its workforce and reduced the hours of those who are left. The Cap & Gown issue generates a lot of money from proud parents, bubbies and zaydies who take out paid advertisements to congratulate their graduates. I’m sure the thinking was that the more teens who are included in the Cap & Gown Yearbook the more ad revenue. And that’s just business — plain and simple.

2) Everyone’s a Winner: In the 21st Century, we’ve become more politically correct and therefore uncomfortable to proclaim winners. The Jewish News simply doesn’t want to be put in a position to say that this young person is an achiever while this one is not. It’s not good for PR (or for selling newspaper subscriptions for that matter) when people perceive that the community’s paper has rejected their daughter.

3) Whose Standards?: I’m hoping that this was ultimately the reason the JN decided to let all who have graduated come and be recognized. Ideally, the Jewish News has realized what most employers realized a long time ago. A person’s GPA only tells part of their story. The many high school graduates who lacked book smarts but spent their high school careers volunteering with disabled children, working part-time jobs, and starring in school theater productions should be celebrated alongside the bookworms who carried 4.0 averages with little extra-curricular notches in their belts.

I’m sure that the Jewish News’ decision to not exclude any Jewish teen from this yearbook was based on a combination of all three of these theories (and likely others too). After all, this also put the Jewish community’s newspaper in the awkward position of deciding who is a Jewish teen. Of course, with every graduating senior being included, the Cap & Gown Yearbook will undoubtedly lose its clout. Will parents be as honored when they see their 3.9 GPA varsity soccer captain who’s headed to Penn listed in the paper next to a 2.0 GPA kid who’s off to Oakland Community College in the fall? We’ll see about that.

The paper articulated the mission of its new Cap & Gown section, explaining, “In recognition of the achievements of all of our high school graduates, this year’s Cap & Gown will be expanded. Think of it as a community-wide version of a high school yearbook. It will show the continuing vitality and promise of our community’s future generation, and the array of higher education choices they are making.”

I’m all for showcasing the promise of our Jewish community’s future generations. I’m just wondering if the lack of a selection process will make this issue too heavy to hold… which I guess is a really good thing for both our community and the Detroit Jewish News. Mazel Tov to all of this year’s high school graduates. You’re all winners!

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

2 Rabbis walk into a Comedy Club

There have been a lot of comedy events lately and that makes sense. The Hebrew month of Adar, with the festive holiday of Purim in the middle of the month, is approaching and according to the famous phrase, “when Adar comes we increase our joy.” And that seems to be exactly what everyone’s doing.

Rabbi Jason Miller and Jewtopia (Bryan Fogel & Sam Wolfson)This past Saturday night, Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield (a suburb of Detroit, Michigan) brought the off-Broadway show “Jewtopia” to their shul. I believe it was a more sanitized version of the show that I saw in New York City this past December with a group from my shul since the full version would not be appropriate in a synagogue. I thought “Jewtopia” was great and I even bought the “Jewtopia” book after the show which the writers/actors, Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson (in photo at right), graciously autographed.

Locally in Columbus, Ohio, it all started Thursday night when I had dinner with Israeli comic David KilimnickRabbi David Kilimnick (left). I was asked to take David to dinner and then to his performance at Tifereth Israel, the other Conservative shul down the street in Columbus. David performed his routine for about 180 USYers who were in town for a Central Region USY (CRUSY) Kinnus hosted by Tifereth Israel and at Agudas Achim. Unfortunately for David, his show was in the main sanctuary, which proved to be a poor venue but he did get some laughs from his funny perspective on making aliyah. David also performed Friday night for Ohio State University Hillel and then on Saturday night for the Main Street Synagogue (Torat Emet).

Rabbi Jason Miller & Rabbi Bob AlperI thought it was pretty funny that a rabbi was doing stand-up comedy at the Main Street Synagogue across town on the same night that my shul, Agudas Achim, was hosting a rabbi doing stand-up comedy as well. Rabbi Bob Alper (in photo to right) contacted me a few months ago about doing a Saturday night concert for us and I thought it was a great idea. Jake Kander, our program director, took care of all the arrangements and asked if I would be willing to be the opening act. I’ve never really done stand-up comedy before, unless you count introducing some comedians with a few jokes as I have done with some local comics from Detroit and for the Sklar Brothers (in photo to left). I also got some good laughs in October when I gave the “invocation” before “Boys Night Out,” a night of comedy hosted by my shul’s brotherhood.

So I agreed to warm up the crowd before Bob Alper took the stage. There were a couple articles about Bob Alper in the local Jewish newspapers in Columbus leading up to the event, including a great front page article in This Week Community Newspapers (Bexley edition). Some photos from the Bob Alper show are available here. Below are two video clips of my opening act. The first is my stand-up routine and the second clip is my introduction of Bob Alper.


Rabbi Jason Miller & Sklar Brothers (Randy and Jason Sklar)Here is the front page article from This Week Community Newspapers:

In keeping with a long-running Jewish comic tradition, two rabbis will perform stand-up comedy Saturday, Feb. 10, at the Congregation Agudas Achim, 2767 E. Broad St.

The 7 p.m. show, which is open to the public, features professional stand-up comic and rabbi Bob Alper. Alper, who has been performing for 20 years, was a rabbi in Buffalo and Philadelphia for 14 years before becoming a professional comic.

Alper performs for synagogues, churches, colleges and other venues as he travels the country. His tag line: “The world’s only practicing clergyman doing stand up…intentionally.” He is also the first Jewish person to earn a doctorate from Princeton Theological Seminary.

His comedy, which is sanitized for a family audience, isn’t totally preoccupied with religion.

“My comedy is half religious. You don’t have to be Jewish to get the jokes,” Alper said.

Alper’s career took off after he placed third out of 100 entries in a Philadelphia comedy contest. He was beaten by a chiropractor and a lawyer, he said. He travels across the country, performing about 100 shows a year.

He frequently performs with Ahmed Ahmed, an Arab Muslim stand-up comedian. They sometimes team up for college shows that are sponsored by the school’s diversity department or the Hillel and Muslim Student Association.

Rabbi Jason Miller of Agudas Achim will warm up the audience with a few jokes of his own. Laughter and fun, Miller said, are key components to the Jewish faith.

“It is important in life to be able to laugh at ourselves. It is a core concept in Judaism to have fun and enjoy life,” he said.

When Miller became the Agudas Achim rabbi eight months ago, his first column in the congregation’s newsletter addressed how important it is to have fun in the synagogue.

“One thing that not enough rabbis drive home is how important it is to have fun while they are in the building,” he said. “Both young and old should feel like this is a place to have fun.”

Miller even teaches a class about Jewish humor. Comics like Woody Allen, Larry David, Mel Brooks and Lenny Bruce are the public faces of the comic tradition in the religion.

The sometimes self-deprecating style of Jewish comedy recognizes that there is humor in being Jewish. Miller recently took some congregants to New York to see “Jewtopia,” a Broadway show that lampoons Jewish stereotypes.

“We were in pain from laughing so hard,” Miller said. “It’s healthy.”

Anyone interested in scoring free beer and learning more about the relationship between Judaism and humor can attend Rabbi Miller’s monthly class, Torah on Tap, at the Bexley Monk on East Main Street. The next installment is at 7 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 22.

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

Arnie Eisen’s Listening Tour Makes News

I was surprised to see one article in the Wall Street Journal incorporate three organizations I’ve been involved with: The Jewish Theological Seminary, Hillel, and the STAR Foundation’s Synaplex.

This is a great article about how Jewish organizations are finally going out and learning what the people want. If I wrote this article (and I’m not sure why I didn’t), I would have included the same institutions that this author does. I commend Prof. Arnie Eisen, the new chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary for following through on what he promised (in meetings I had with him in both Detroit and Columbus) by conducting a listening tour throughout the Conservative movement to determine what matters most to Conservative Jews. I’m glad to see his devotion to the cause is getting this type of exposure.

I was also happy to see Rabbi Hayim Herring interviewed for this article. Rabbi Herring is the executive director of the STAR Foundation, which runs two programs that I am very much involved with — Synaplex and PEER. Like the author of this article recognizes in her subtitle, “consultant speak” has definitely found its way into organized religion (or at least Judaism).

Reviving Judaism
BY NAOMI SCHAEFER RILEY
WALL STREET JOURNAL

A few weeks ago, Hillary Clinton got started on a new “listening tour.” Her first one, during the 2000 Senate campaign, was aimed at soliciting the ideas of New York voters on what legislative issues were important to them. This one is aimed at hearing the thoughts of Democratic strategists on the subject of her presidential run. But the idea behind the tours remained the same: Find out what the people want–and, if possible, give it to them.Arnie-Eisen
In politics, such an approach has an irrefutable democratic logic. But is it well suited to religion? Arnold Eisen, the chancellor-elect of the Jewish Theological Seminary, has spent the past few months on a “listening tour” of his own, holding town-hall meetings around the country to figure out how to reinvigorate Conservative Judaism. Mr. Eisen is looking to find out what Jews want–and, if possible, give it to them.

Trying to make Judaism more popular is not a new idea. Jewish leaders have worried for decades that high rates of intermarriage and assimilation are causing the Jewish population to diminish dramatically. And they are right. Between 1990 and 2000, the American Jewish population declined to 5.2 million from 5.5 million. With Jewish women getting married later in life and having fewer children, this trend is likely only to accelerate.

But the most recent response to this crisis has been less than inspiring. The Jewish Week recently published “17 Seriously Cool Ideas to Remake New York’s Jewish Community.” These included creating a Jewish culinary institute, building a kibbutz in the Big Apple, providing high-quality Jewish toddler care, hosting a hipper Israeli Independence Day parade, and baking better kosher pizza.

Perhaps these ideas were meant to be a little tongue-in-cheek, but other ideas are not–and probably should be. Take a new project called Synaplex. Sponsored by the Star Foundation, Synaplex is, according to its Web site, “designed to provide people with new reasons to make the synagogue the place to be on Shabbat.” About 125 synagogues are already “enabling people to celebrate Shabbat the way they want to.”

What does that mean? Instead of attending a traditional service, Rabbi Hayim Herring, Star’s executive director, tells me, some people would do “Medi-Torah” or “Torah and Yoga.” Others might attend a lecture or go to a musical service followed by a “latte cart.” And still others might prefer to attend a Friday night wine-and-cheese reception. [Continue Reading]

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

Michigan State hires chair of Israel Studies

When I attended Michigan State University from 1994-98, I certainly would not have believed that the university would soon hire an Israel Studies chair and a Jewish Studies professor who specialized in Jewish studies. In addition to concentrating in International Relations at James Madison College, a liberal arts residential college at MSU, I also specialized in the Jewish Studies Program.

In the past couple weeks the Religious Studies department has announced that Prof. Benjamin Pollock will be the full time assistant professor teaching Modern Jewish Thought and a course on Judaism. (I taught these courses this past year as a visiting professor)

Additionally, Yael Aronoff, a senior associate at Columbia University’s Institute of War and Peace Studies, has been named the first Michael and Elaine Serling and Friends Israel Studies Chair at Michigan State University.

The Serling chair is a core position in MSU’s Jewish Studies Program, which is administered by the College of Arts and Letters. Aronoff will become a faculty member in James Madison College, the university’s prestigious residential college in the area of public affairs.

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