I’ve Read Anne Frank’s Diary. And Tiki Barber, You’re No Anne Frank!

In February I toured the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam for the first time. It was a chilling experience. Since 7th grade, I’ve read several versions of Anne Frank’s diary. I’ve seen several versions of movies about Anne Frank. And I toured the Anne Frank exhibit at the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.

I am no scholar on Anne Frank, but I do know one thing. A professional football player who hides out in his agent’s home so the pesky media can’t interview him is no Anne Frank.

In an interview with Sports Illustrated, former NFL player Tiki Barber described how he had to go into hiding as media scrutiny grew on him in April 2010 following his separation with his wife. Even though Barber joined his agent, Mark Lepselter, in the attic of his agent’s house, it’s still not even close to appropriate to make such a comparison.

Apparently, Barber felt that his agent was playing the role of the kind Dutch people who helped Anne Frank and family hide from the Nazis in early 1940s Amsterdam. Barber explained to Sports Illustrated that “Lep’s Jewish and it was like a reverse Anne Frank thing.”

I’m quite certain that the Sports Illustrated columnist knew that Barber’s comparison would raise eyebrows. And somehow, Agent Lepselter has been defending his client’s ridiculous analogy.

Lepselter told ESPN, “In a world where nothing surprises me, where things get completely blown out of proportion, this only adds to the list. All Tiki was saying to (SI) was he was shedding light on going back to that time when he was literally trapped, so to speak, in my attic for a week. Nothing more, nothing less… Let me remind all those who want to make this more than it is: Tiki was a guest of (president) Shimon Peres in Israel five years ago.”

I’m curious to see if Tiki Barber will continue as an NFL commentator in the future of if this PR nightmare will mark the end of this TV career. If Barber decides to write about his poor choice of words in a diary, I certainly hope he will have learned his lesson and not compare himself to another famous diary writer.

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

Death of Osama Bin Laden Reported on Yom HaShoah

Today was Yom HaShoah, the annual commemoration of the Holocaust in which we remember the millions who perished at the hands of the Nazis. As I read the names of children from Hungary who were murdered in the Shoah, I thought about my recent trip to Berlin. I thought about how different Berlin would be today had the majority of its Jewish citizens continued to live and procreate.

I plan to write some reflections from my Berlin experience soon, but the big news now being reported is that Osama Bin Laden has been confirmed dead. It would truly be poetic justice if he were killed on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day.

However, the reports are saying that Osama Bin Laden was actually killed over a week ago. If so, that would put his death right in the middle of Passover, the time of our liberation. The theme of Passover is freedom, the principle that Bin Laden tried to crush on September 11, 2001. It would be fitting if the U.S. was able to finally kill Bin Laden during the Passover holiday. (This year, the secular anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising fell during Passover.)

In Judaism, we are commanded to remember what Amalek did to us and blot out its name from under heaven. I have no doubt that Osama Bin Laden’s name will be blotted out, but that the American people will also never forget the atrocities committed on 9/11.

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

The Light of German Jewry

This has been a whirlwind week for me in Berlin, where I’ve spent long days touring with other young Conservative rabbis. We have learned first hand about how Germans have confronted their past and are looking to their future. We have seen the German Jewish community rebuilding itself with a sense of pride and renewal.

This Shabbat, in the Torah portion Tetzaveh, we learn about the ner tamid (the eternal light). We can compare the ner tamid — a main focal point in the Temple — with the German Jewish community. Considering the horrific history the Jewish people in this part of the world endured during the last century, it is crucial to remember that this Jewish community’s light was never fully extinguished — it is eternal.

In the past few days, I have visited a concentration camp and several Holocaust memorials. That is precisely what one would expect our group of rabbis to experience here in Berlin. But that is only the first part of the story. We also visited a liberal rabbinical school (Abraham Geiger College), progressive synagogues (like the Masorti congregation where my colleague Gesa Ederberg serves as rabbi), Jewish centers, a Masorti nursery school, kosher restaurants, and Jewish museums. We learned how German school children are confronting their nation’s history during the Shoah.

Our group of rabbis spent an entire morning in the German Foreign Ministry being briefed on international relations by a high level, career diplomat. We were hosted at a luncheon on the top floor of the Reichstag, looking out over Berlin. We had a glatt kosher dinner with our Protestant colleagues, exchanging theological viewpoints and perceptions about memory over shnitzel and goulash. I have worn my kippah in the streets of Berlin over the past week without incident. I have heard Hebrew spoken throughout the city, both by Israelis and non-Israelis. When I took off my coat at a museum, the German guard smiled and said “Todah Rabbah” (Hebrew for “thank you”) and “shalom.”

This is a changing country. I was unaware of the renaissance taking place here in the German Jewish community. Democracy, tolerance, justice and understanding are all shared values here in Berlin. The light of our Jewish brothers and sisters here is not only still kindled, but it is burning bright.

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

In Desire of a Less Political 9/11 Anniversary

Last week, I was asked by the Detroit Free Press to submit three paragraphs reflecting on where I was on September 11, 2001 and how my life changed as a result of that day. The irony for my wife and for me is that we made the conscious decision to go ahead with our plans of moving to Israel for the year even though there was violence in Jerusalem throughout the summer of 2001. It wasn’t until the terrorist attacks of 9/11 occurred here in the U.S. that we made the difficult decision to alter our plans and not move to Israel.

This year, the anniversary of 9/11 was a collision of religious events as it fell on the Sabbath following Rosh Hashanah — a fast day were it not the Sabbath — and on the Muslim celebration of Eid al-Fitr — a holiday marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan. 9/11 was turned into a political storm as a result of the explosive debate surrounding the planned Islamic cultural center and mosque just blocks from Ground Zero.

There are some similarities between the planned building of Park51 (formerly known as Cordoba House) two blocks from the Ground Zero site and the potential building of a convent near the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1989. However, Anthony Stevens-Arroyo, writing in the Washington Post, explains that the lesson taught by Pope John Paul II in not allowing the nuns to move their convent to that site is not necessarily what the “‘move the mosque’ spokespersons would want to hear.”

More than the debate on whether to allow the Islamic cultural center and mosque to be built so close to Ground Zero, what has surprised me is that the family members of the victims from the Twin Towers have not voiced loud opposition to the fact that their loved ones’ graves will become a shopping mall. The lower floors of the rebuilt World Trade Center will be stores. Some will argue that this displays our resolve to rebuild that site as a place of commerce. Others will recall the debate, again at Auschwitz, of constructing a shopping mall in a building once used for storing hair and possessions from murdered prisoners of the camp. A mile from the Auschwitz camp, the site of the proposed shopping mall had been a disco until it was forced to close.

All of this controversy comes down to the issue of space and how we seek to sanctify it. Ultimately those who argue that a mosque would desecrate the hollowed ground of Ground Zero, the burial spots of thousands, and attempt to prove their point by burning copies of the Koran are just as guilty of desecration. I’m hopeful that in the end, calmer heads will prevail, and the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks will be a more civil display of remembrance rather than a petty political debate. I’m nostalgic for the passionate displays of patriotism that prevailed in the weeks following the attacks in our country.

Here is the unedited reflection I submitted to the Detroit Free Press last week:

My life was in limbo on September 11, 2001. My wife and I had spent our first two years of marriage living in a small apartment in Manhattan, just twelve blocks from the Jewish Theological Seminary where I was studying to become a rabbi. We planned to relocate to Jerusalem after the Jewish holidays where we would experience life in Israel for the year and I would continue my rabbinic studies. In the week prior to Rosh Hashanah, I traveled by plane to Chicago to visit my friend who had just moved there. Little did I know I would be stranded in Chicago and our plans to move to Israel would be canceled.

I woke up on the morning of 9/11 in my friend’s Chicago apartment. Jeremy told me to turn the television on to the Today Show on NBC because a plane had just flown into one of the World Trade Center towers. I couldn’t believe my eyes and then we saw another plane fly into the other tower. The world would change forever, and so would the way people talk about that date in history. My flight was canceled, but I was able to take a train back to Michigan a couple days later. Air France, with whom we had booked our flights to Israel, decided they would no longer fly to Israel and immediately refunded our money. We made the difficult decision, along with many of my classmates and their spouses, to stay in the U.S. for the year rather than spend it in Israel. Ironically, it was a choice we made because of the terrorism in America and not because of the scary terrorist acts that had plagued Israel all summer long.

My wife and I had already rented out our New York City apartment so returning there wasn’t an option. Instead, we took our possessions out of storage and moved to Caldwell, NJ – close enough to commute into Manhattan and live in a vibrant Jewish community where I would intern at the local synagogue. For us, 9/11 altered our plans. We never had the chance to live in Jerusalem for a year (at least not before children), but that is certainly no comparison to the way so many lives changed dreadfully as a result of the horrific events of that day. We made the best of a change of plans, while so many families will never be the same. Our country will never be the same after being shaken from the acts of 9/11 – as much as we came together as an American people in the weeks that followed, the events of that day have also torn us apart.

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

Dancing at Auschwitz

The Holocaust Memorial Center in Detroit, Michigan is the nation’s first Holocaust memorial. It was originally located in a building connected to the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield. It was this Holocaust museum that I toured with my grandfather when I was twelve-years-old and listened to him explain that many of his family members — my relatives — perished in the Shoah.

Several years ago that Holocaust museum moved to a new location a few miles away in Farmington Hills. The space that was originally occupied by the Holocaust Center is now a teen center where Jewish youth come to watch movies, play video games, eat pizza, and compete in pool and ping-pong tournaments. It is also where hundreds of Jewish teenagers come to dance to loud music.

The symbolism is not lost on me. This space was originally dedicated as a museum to pay tribute to the victims of the Shoah and to memorialize the six million souls who perished. It was a solemn space to educate about the Holocaust so that history wouldn’t be repeated. But today, it is a space where Jewish young people (many the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Holocaust survivors) can celebrate that “Am Yisrael Chai” — the Jewish people have endured. Hitler and the Nazis were not successful because the Jewish people are alive today and our children sing and dance at the Jewish Community Center and in the location originally consecrated as a museum of memory.

It is in this spirit that I embraced the YouTube video of a Holocaust survivor dancing with his grandchildren to the tune of Gloria Gaynor’s song “I Will Survive” in front of Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp. The original video, which was viewed over 500,000 times in one day, has since been removed from YouTube for a copyright violation. However, it was likely removed due to the controversy it created. The reposted video is below.

Australian Jewish artist Jane Korman filmed her three children and her father, 89-year-old Holocaust survivor Adolk, in the video clip “I Will Survive: Dancing Auschwitz.” The clip depicted the Korman family dancing in front of Holocaust landmarks in Poland, including the infamous entrance sign to Auschwitz death camp reading “Arbeit Macht Frei,” a Polish synagogue, Dachau, Theresienstadt, and a memorial in Lodz.

Her father at one point in the clip even wore a shirt on which the word “Survivor” was written. During a recent family visit to Israel Korman said that she thought of the idea after she encountered hatred toward Israel and Jews in Australia and added that she wanted to give her concerns presence during the heritage tour of Poland she recently took with her family, and take a different approach to the matter.

Haaretz newspaper reported that “Many Jewish survivors have reacted gravely to the video, accusing her of disrespect. Yet Korman told Australian daily The Jewish News that ‘it might be disrespectful, but he [her father] is saying ‘we’re dancing, we should be dancing, we’re celebrating our survival and the generations after me,’ – the generation he’s created. We are affirming our existence.'”

This is clearly a work of art, but it is also a powerful message that no matter how horrific and catastrophic were the acts committed by the Nazis in the last century, the Jewish people are still having children and grandchildren, and we are dancing together in joy all over the earth. Even on the land that buried millions of members of the Jewish faith, the Jewish people are still rejoicing with our future generations.

What do you think about Holocaust survivors dancing with their grandchildren at Auschwitz?

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

Yom HaShoah: From "The Camps" to "Camp"

On an early morning this past June, I stood in a synagogue parking lot taking temperatures of the Jewish children before they boarded the buses to take them off to summer camp. Along with every other staff member in the parking lot, I was wearing a brown shirt — the official staff shirt of the summer. It isn’t common practice to take each camper’s temperature before they board the bus, but in 2009’s summer of Swine Flu it was a necessary precaution. If a camper had a fever, they were not allowed on the bus until they saw a doctor who could provide them with a clean bill of health.

When I arrived at camp later that morning, I was approached by one of the camp doctors. He told me that as a child of Holocaust survivors, he was appalled at the color of the staff shirts. He explained how he thought his mother (a survivor) would perceive of having people in “brown shirts” telling the Jewish children to board the buses to go to the camp only after checking to see who was healthy enough to go to the camp and who would be turned away.

For this child of Holocaust survivors, the Holocaust imagery was front and center. I immediately framed it in a different light for him. How amazing is it that some six decades after the Holocaust when Jewish children are sent to camp, it is to experience the time of their lives engaged in fun programs and Jewish activities, I asked him. Contrast that to what their great-grandparents’ generation experienced in Eastern Europe.

Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, has just passed. In the last two days I found myself immersed in the commemoration of the Holocaust. Sunday began with a speech by a Holocaust survivor, Aron Zoldan, and then later in the afternoon at the Jewish Community Center I opened the “Unto Every Person There is a Name” project by reciting the special Mourner’s Kaddish that incorporates the names of the camps into the kaddish prayer. That night, my wife and I viewed the new Anne Frank film on PBS. Last night, I facilitated a brief Holocaust commemoration and candle-lighting for Jewish teens, in which two rabbis — one the son of survivors and the other the grandson of survivors — recited the Mourner’s Kaddish.

On Sunday, as I read the names of dozens of young Jewish people from Czechoslovakia and France who perished in the Holocaust, my attention shifted to this generation’s Jewish youth. Think about the many opportunities Jewish youth have today. Watching the Anne Frank film, I again directed my thoughts to how free Jewish teenagers are today. Anne and her sister Margot lost the freedom of their teenage years while hiding in the annex.

Today, Jewish teens fly to Poland on the “March of the Living” program and march into the death camps. The difference, of course, is that after seeing the burial grounds of millions of people these teens then march out of the camps. The teens then travel to Israel to experience the modern Jewish homeland, a nation many argue was built on the ashes of the Nazi Holocaust.

In much the same way that camp doctor was troubled by the Holocaust connection of “brown shirts” determining which Jewish children were healthy enough to be sent to camp, an Israeli man was surprised to see the Hebrew term “machanot” used as a translation of summer camps. Last summer, an Israeli counselor at my Jewish summer camp posted a photo on Facebook of a sign hanging in our dining hall that included the Hebrew word “machanot,” meaning camps. A fellow Israeli commented on her photo that he was troubled by the term since it refers to the camps during the Holocaust.

For so many, the Holocaust imagery and terminology cannot be escaped. The human tragedy of the Holocaust is so much a part of Jewish identity, both person and communal, that nary a day goes by that Jewish people do not consider the six million murdered by the Nazis.

The fact that “the camps” means something so starkly different than “camp” is powerful. An 80-year-old Jewish man might ask a contemporary, “Which camp did you go to?” And that question means something so different than when a 30-year-old Jewish man asks his contemporary, “Which camp did you go to?”

Walking down the main road of my camp, it is difficult to miss the beautiful Irv Berg sculptures that honor those who were murdered by the Nazis. And on the summer fast day of Tisha B’Av, we remember the victims of the Holocaust in words and art and music. The hundreds of smiles seen each summer day on the faces of the Jewish children at camp is a wonderful tribute to the millions of our people who perished in the Holocaust. The Jewish people have indeed endured and thrived in the decades since World War II.

Thankfully, our generation’s “camp” is 180 degrees from what “camp” meant to a previous generation. May the memories of those who lost their lives in the Holocaust be an enduring blessing and a constant encouragement that humanity never again allows such a tragedy to occur.

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

Basterds at the Seminary

JTA writer Ami Eden began his blog post about the showing of Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” at the Jewish Theological Seminary as follows:

There are many wonderful things to say about the Jewish Theological Seminary, but let’s face it — it’s not exactly where all the hipsters meet. Honestly, how many times do you find yourself saying: I’m going to a really cool event at JTS tonight.

Important. Interesting. I’ll even give you provocative (sometimes). But, cool?

Well, to be fair, I guess I also wouldn’t characterize JTS as the hippest place in Manhattan. Sure, the six years I spent there in rabbinical school were some of the best and most exciting years of my life, but “cool” programs were not the Seminary’s forte. Recently, times have been tough on JTS with harsh financial woes, budget cuts, and the downsizing of its faculty and staff. They have even decided to close the Seminary on Fridays to save money. I do give Arnie Eisen, the new chancellor, a lot of credit for trying to turn things around and improve the image of JTS. Although, some might do a double-take at the recent programs the Seminary has hosted.

First, there was the event a couple months ago hosted by Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Model Esti Ginzburg, and sponsored by Birthright NEXT and the Council of Young Jewish Presidents. The party for young Jewish New Yorkers was described as “an evening of fashion and passion.” However, having JTS (the academic center of Conservative Judaism) sponsor a party hosted by a bikini model didn’t sit well with many of my female rabbinic colleagues.

Rabbi Joanna Samuels wrote in the Forward, “An institution that trains clergy should probably stay away from events fronted by swimsuit models. People who learn, teach, and advocate for the highest values of our tradition are not going to increase Judaism’s appeal – or their own – through forcing an association with low-brow celebrity culture. The religious leaders who chase after celebrities in the name of kiruv -lo and behold! -often turn out to be using their Torah-for-the-masses public face as a screen for their own narcissism or social climbing.”

Well, I’m not sure the event demanded that level of criticism, but I too found it odd that JTS would host such an event. Hopefully, it achieved its mission of getting hundreds of professional, active, vibrant, young Jews to a party in which they could network (network, by the way, means date and then get married whereby they will produce Jewish offspring to repopulate the Jewish community).

The next event the Seminary produced could also be described as cool and controversial, although in a different way. When I received an e-mail publicizing the screening of Quentin Tarantino’s film Inglourious Basterds, I immediately recognized it as the Seminary trying something new and different. When I read that Tarantino himself would attend the event, I booked a flight to NYC. I didn’t want to pass up a chance to watch a Tarantino film with Tarantino. I’ve been a big fan of the filmmaker’s for years, and Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, and the Kill Bill movies are among my favorites.

So, how does a Jewish academic institution like JTS come to host a screening and panel discussion of this violent, controversial, and profanity-laden film? Here’s the story:

Rabbi Jack Moline, a Conservative rabbi in Alexandria, Virginia did what many rabbis (myself included) did on Yom Kippur this past Fall. He delivered a sermon based on the Holocaust film everyone was talking about — Inglourious Basterds. Moline tells his congregation that this is, in some twisted way, a feel good Holocaust movie for us Jews. He explains that it is cathartic to view the film, in which the Nazis die horrific deaths, as a revenge fantasy. His sentiments were not much different than the sentiments of many rabbis, including Rabbi Irwin Kula. In his articulate review of the film on the Huffington Post, Kula concluded, “Thank you, Quentin Tarantino. You have reminded us, whether you intended to or not, that we are never as powerful as our greatest fantasies and never as powerless as our worst nightmares.”

So, Jack Moline’s sermon makes its way to Lawrence Bender, the producer of the film. Bender also reads Irwin Kula’s review on the Web. He reports about both of them to Quentin Tarantino, who is interested in what rabbis think about the film. Rabbi Marc Wolf, vice-chancellor of JTS, suggests to Chancellor Arnie Eisen that the Seminary show the film and host a panel discussion including Lawrence Bender. Some calls were made, some Jewish connections to Hollywood utilized, and that’s how a Hollywood producer came to find his way to 3080 Broadway to sit on a panel moderated by the Seminary’s chancellor, and including Rabbi Jack Moline and Rabbi Amy Kalmanofsky (a biblical scholar and self-proclaimed lover of gory films).

Following the 2 1/2 hour film, shown in Feinberg Auditorium on a large, rented HD screen with dynamic stereo sound, Bender announced to the dismay of the audience that Mr. Tarantino would not be attending due to a sore throat. While I was certainly disappointed that I traveled to NYC to see and hear Tarantino, the panel discussion (titled: “Jewish Persecution and the Fantasy of Revenge”) was very interesting nevertheless. It began with Chancellor Eisen reading from Irwin Kula’s impressions of the film (the crowd was obviously taken aback when Eisen didn’t censor himself in reading Kula’s words which included a profanity or two). Kalmanofsky then gave an exciting perspective on why she loved the film so much and had no problem with the violence or the revenge cast upon the Nazis. Moline said much of what he had spoken in his Kol Nidrei address, and explained that he returned to the pulpit the next morning on Yom Kippur day to give a different take on Holocaust memory and the respect deserved by the victims. All agreed that after so many Holocaust films had been produced, this one offers a much different take. And one that was a breath of fresh air.

Lawrence Bender spoke about traveling to Israel and Munich with Tarantino to show the film to audiences there. Everyone laughed when he recounted the story of his sitting down to lunch with the actor who played Hitler. The actor was in full makeup and sat alone during the lunch break. Bender recalled that he sort of felt badly for the guy and joined him. Perhaps, the highlight of the panel discussion was Lawrence Bender’s own father, who sat in the audience behind me and kept offering his own assessment of the film’s message (see video clip below).

All in all, it was a much different JTS-sponsored program than I remember attending as a student at the Seminary. Things have certainly changed at JTS and I’m glad the administration is trying new things. Chatting with Marc Wolf earlier that day, he dropped a hint about what could be his next big production at JTS when he asked if I’d seen the Coen Brother’s new film “A Serious Man.” “Wouldn’t it be interesting to hear them talk about that film here?” he asked.

Here’s a video clip of Lawrence Bender and Arnie Eisen talking about Inglourious Basterds:

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

White House Comedian Ari Teman Gets a Laugh Out of Obama

Ari Teman is having a great year. First, the Jewish comedian and founder of Jcorps wins the highly competitive Jewish Community Hero award. Next, he gets invited to the White House Hanukkah party. I’m pretty sure it was a legit invite and that he didn’t just crash an official White House party like Tareq and Michaele Salahi did last month.

Seth Galena, one-half of the Bangitout.com duo, reported on Facebook about Ari Teman’s White House experience. Apparently, he didn’t just shake the president’s hand in the receiving line, but actually used the time to tell Barack Obama a joke. The party was a who’s-who of Jewish D.C. including an assortment of Jewish leaders from across the nation.

Here’s the apparent conversation between Ari Teman and the 44th president of the U.S.:

Ari: Mr. President, I’m a comedian from New York —
Obama: Are you funny?
Ari : I tell jokes about you on stage every night, can I tell you one?
Obama: Sure.
Ari: I’ll say “Obama” instead of “Mr. President.”
Obama: Sure.
Ari: So, they’re calling Obama a Nazi —
Obama: Oh yeah (nodding)
Ari: Which I think is fantastic… because if you thought the Presidency was a tough job for a black guy to get!
[Obama starts cracking up.]
Ari: …Nazi… we have overcome! Mr. President, you have broken down color barriers.
[Obama, still laughing, shakes Teman’s hand again and gives him a hug]
Obama: That’s great!!

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

Pope in Israel

My first exposure to Catholicism was as a teenager. I was the assistant to a photographer who photographed several Catholic weddings. I found it fascinating to be in these beautiful churches and watch the religious rites of the Catholic tradition. I joked that, at the time, I had been to more Catholic weddings than Jewish weddings. That quickly changed.

My next experience with anything Catholic was in rabbinical school when I was selected to participate in an interfaith dialogue program called Seminarians Interacting. The now defunct program brought Christian, Jewish, and Muslim theological students (future priests, rabbis, and imams) together in a setting of mutual engagement and exchange. It was sponsored by the National Conference for Community and Justice (formerly known as the National Conference for Christians and Jews). The program was hosted at a large, beautiful Catholic seminary in Baltimore. Again, I learned a great deal about Catholics and noted several similarities between their religion and Judaism.

The summer following Seminarians Interacting, I served a chaplaincy internship at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan. The Clinical Pastoral Education program was made up of two rabbinical students, three future Catholic priests, and about a half-dozen other future religious leaders. My interactions with the three Catholic seminary students led to wonderful friendships. The program was geared toward pastoral education, but our informal conversations during lunch and in the hospital corridors were about our respective religious tradition. We spoke of personal faith, our families, and the stress of our future positions. These coreligionists responded candidly to me about their individual decisions to join the priesthood and live a life of chastity. They explained the hierarchy of the priesthood to me, helped me understand the importance of Vatican II (Pope Paul’s 1965 proclamation of Nostar Aetate), and taught me the symbolism behind the Eucharist (Holy Communion). Of course, their curiosity about Judaism led to many enjoyable Q&A sessions as well. I remember driving to the Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit with one of the future priests to play racquetball (racquetball courts in the Seminary dorms — I was jealous!). On the way, he played a CD for me with the most beautiful Mass service.

Recently, with the Pope’s visit to Israel, I have been thinking much about Catholic-Jewish relations and my own interfaith relationships. This past March, as news of the Israel visit by Pope Benedict XVI was growing, an article in the Jerusalem Post explained that the rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinovitch, said that it is not proper for him to come to the Kotel wearing a cross. He said, “My position is that it is not fitting to enter the Western Wall area with religious symbols, including a cross.” He said he feels the same way about a Jewish man walking into a church wearing a tallit and t’fillin. Not that it matters since he would never set foot in a church. It’s also a silly analogy because tallit and t’fillin are religious articles used during prayer. Wearing a cross around ones neck is akin to wearing a Star of David or a Chai. While several rabbis responded to Rabbi Rabinovitch, I thought my colleague Rabbi Andrew Sacks put it best. In the JPost blog, he told the following story:

It seems that back in the 18th century, a Christian asked Rabbi Moses Mendelssohn “how can your religion be correct if my religion is correct?” His response was that there is one pasture, but many gates. Or as your scripture puts it, “In my father’s house there are many rooms.” Let the many “gates” to the Kotel, the “gates of righteousness,” be open to all.

This week’s Time Magazine has an interesting article on Catholic-Jewish relations, “Pope Benedict and the Question of Judaism”. It addresses the Pope’s first visit to Israel, but underscores the tension he has caused due to several missteps in his relationship with the Jewish community. In reversing the 1988 excommunication of four bishops of an ultra-traditionalist Catholic group called the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), he included the Holocaust denying Bishop Richard Williamson who believes the Nazi gas chambers never existed. Further, in a 2006 speech at Auschwitz, he failed to mention anti-Semitism, instead contending that “ultimately the Nazis’ motive in killing Jews was to tear up the taproot of the Christian faith.” He also reintroduced a prayer in the Mass calling for Jews to convert.

Last month, I joined several local Detroit-area rabbis for a luncheon with the new Archbishop of Detroit, the Most Reverend Allen Vigneron (right). He spoke openly about which aspects of Judaism have influenced his Catholic beliefs. Perhaps, most impressive, he did not hesitate to speak about the recent controversies of the pope with regard to the Jewish people. Rather than seek to defend the pontiff, Archbishop Vigneron, who is likely to named a Cardinal, expressed his deep desire to further dialogue with the Jewish community. I was very impressed of his knowledge of Judaism and his making Catholic-Jewish relations a priority.

It should be no surprise that the Pope’s arrival in Jerusalem yesterday has already caused a fuss. News is circulating around the Web that Pope Benedict walked out on a sheikh delivering an anti-Israel diatribe yesterday in a meeting of interfaith leaders. Rabbi Barry Leff was there and wrote on his blog about his take on what happened. He wrote:

Sheikh Taysir al-Tamimi, chief Islamic judge of the Palestinian Authority, delivered a rant at the gathering at the Notre Dame center in Jerusalem. I don’t speak Arabic — and I presume the Pope doesn’t either — so at the time all I could tell was that the Sheikh was very animated. At one point whatever he said received some modest applause from the Arabic-speaking crowd. According to the Jerusalem Post report, here’s what he was saying: ‘In an impromptu speech, delivered in Arabic at the Notre Dame Pontifical Institute in Jerusalem, Sheikh Tayseer Tamimi, chief Islamic judge in the Palestinian Authority, launched a 10-minute tirade against the State of Israel for confiscating Palestinians’ land and carrying out war crimes against the residents of Gaza.” He also called for the immediate return of all Palestinian refugees, and called on Christians and Muslims to unite against Israel.

The entire text of the Pope’s speech is available here.

Rabbi Leff adds that the Pope quoted from the Torah portion Lech Lecha, saying: “God said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your kindred and your father’s house for a land I shall show you.”

No matter what the current Pope does or says, the relationship between Catholics and Jews is an important one. All interfaith relations are fragile in nature. I believe we should look positively on the Pope’s visit to Israel and use it as a springboard toward making dialogue between Jewish leaders and Catholic leaders a priority.

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

Sacred Space

I’ve been thinking a lot about sacred space recently. Of course, I give much thought to the concept of what makes a place holy (or sacred) whenever I am in Israel. At each turn one encounters a sacred location from Jewish history.

However, what turns a place that is generally considered to be a secular place into a sacred one?

Last week, after I taught my monthly class on Jewish business ethics at a Downtown Detroit law firm I began to drive back uptown to the suburbs. When I turned to get on the highway I saw the old Tiger Stadium in the distance. While Tiger Stadium hasn’t been used as the home field of the Detroit Tigers since the Tigers last played there on September 27, 1999, it is still very much on the minds of Detroiters and Tigers fans. Seeing the vacant stadium (or what’s left of it since some of it was demolished earlier this year) standing there at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, I was lured to go pay a visit. I parked my car along the street where the Right Field wall once stood — the area where my favorite player Kirk Gibson used to defend the outfield. I got out and took some photos of the snow-covered park. I felt extremely nostalgic about the baseball stadium where I viewed my first Major League game (and many more after that).

There is much debate about what will become of the old Tiger Stadium, but no matter what it is used for (hopefully little league games) or how it is memorialized (hopefully a museum) there is no question that for me it is sacred space.

This is true of other places in my life as well. I’m sure that many years from now, the Palace of Auburn Hills (home to the Detroit Pistons for the past twenty years) will also become a sacred space to Pistons fans like me who have enjoyed watching them play there (even though I have fond memories of watching the Pistons play at the Pontiac Silverdome as well).

Some places have sentimental value because they haven’t changed much over the years. My oldest son is a preschool student in the exact same classroom where I was a preschool student at Adat Shalom Synagogue in the early 1980s. The classroom hasn’t changed much since then, so each time I walk in to drop him off for school I experience yet another flashback to my childhood. Of course, it has been transformed into a more modern classroom to keep pace with the educational advances of the past three decades. A few years ago I even taught a class in that same room for teenagers and found that to be a surreal experience (at least during the first class). That classroom is certainly a sacred space for me as it is the location where both my formal education and my first born child’s formal education commenced. Independent of the fact that it is in a holy place (synagogue), it still carries sacredness. It is sacred space.

In some cases, it is specifically the way in which a sacred space has been transformed that gives it meaning and value. In the case of the original location of the Detroit Holocaust Memorial Center (America’s First Freestanding Holocaust Memorial Center), the transformation is stark and conveys an interesting message. Several years ago, the Detroit Holocaust Memorial Center moved to a new location a few miles away leaving the JCC with the decision of what to do with the space. A new, state-of-the-art teen center now occupies the entire building where the Holocaust center was once located.

A couple days ago I was given a tour of the JCC’s new Beverly Prentis Wagner Teen Center (right) by director Lindsey Fox. It is a very impressive site with ping pong tables, foosball, Nintendo Wii spots, computer labs, a snack-bar, video games, and more. The fact that thousands of Jewish teens will now gather socially in a space once occupied by a memorial to the Holocaust was not lost on me. As soon as I entered the teen center I remembered the chill I felt each time I visited the Holocaust center. I remembered the buzzing sound of the lights above and the coldness of the brick walls. Certain things haven’t changed much in the space. The movie auditorium where I once viewed survivor testimonies looks the same — although now teenagers will watch High School Musical and Adam Sandler movies there. The small seating areas where I once watched films of the Nazi killing machine on small televisions will now be used for Jewish youth to play video games on flat screen monitors. And the conference room where Holocaust researchers once lectured will now be filled with Jewish youth group members eating pizza and socializing.

This is the best way to demonstrate that some sixty years since the end of the Holocaust the Jewish people have endured. This is a loud statement that the Nazi attempts to eradicate the Jewish people were unsuccessful.

A beloved baseball stadium left vacant that will soon be used for youth baseball. A nursery school classroom occupied by multi-generations. A Holocaust memorial center transformed into a Jewish teen center. Each of these is a sacred space transformed to preserve its sacredness.

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