Who Owns Jewish Ritual?

My rabbinic networks have been abuzz about the second episode of a new reality TV show on TLC called “The Sisterhood.” I first learned of the controversial episode when someone Tweeted the clip to me asking me what I thought. I then sent an article about the episode from The Christian Post to my colleagues in Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders program and an interesting discussion ensued.

TLC’s new reality TV show “The Sisterhood” has been panned by Christians for disrespecting Christianity and by Jewish people for using Jewish ritual in a Christian framework.

The new reality show features Texas couple Brian Lewis and his wife Tara and their children. The show premiered on New Year’s day. In the second episode, the family discusses their preparation for their son’s upcoming bar mitzvah. The couple’s 13-year-old son Trevor however isn’t Jewish and neither are his parents. In fact, Trevor’s father is a Christian pastor who was raised in a Jewish household before converting to Christianity before marriage.

In the show Tara speaks directly to the camera, explaining, “To celebrate our Jewish heritage, we are throwing him a Bar Mitzvah. A Christian Bar Mitzvah.” Brian explains it as more than just a passing of age ceremony and more of  a social event.

The notion of a Christian boy celebrating a bar mitzvah was enough to irk many Jewish viewers, but the show ruffled even more feathers by using Jewish ritual items for the occasion. Pastor Brian reveals to his son the tallit that he will wear for his ceremony.

This raises the question of whether Jewish people “own” such concepts as a bar mitzvah and traditionally Jewish ritual garb like a tallit. After all, the Jewish people were not the first people to create entering adulthood ceremonies or prayer shawls (those are likely borrowed from the ancient Egyptians). So, the episode actually encourages an interesting conversation about the kishke (gut) reaction to seeing a religious Christian family appropriating a Jewish life-cycle event and Jewish ritual items. Interestingly, some Jewish people even took exception with the cake prepared for Trevor’s bar mitzvah resembling a Torah scroll.

I’ll get back to the Christian bar mitzvah, but two very recent events forced me to consider these issues as well. Sitting in a session on Tuesday morning at CES (the Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas, a gentleman wearing tzitzit (a four cornered undergarment with ritual fringes hanging out) sat down next to me. I immediately noticed that he wasn’t wearing a kippah (yarmulke) although the four braided fringes complete with threads of blue were proudly dangling around his waist. It didn’t take me long to realize that he was a religious Christian and not Jewish. Eavesdropping on the conversation he was having with the woman on the other side of me, I heard him explain that he and his family live a devout Christian lifestyle in Texas in accordance with both the Old Testament and the New Testament.

Rohan Marley shows off his gold Jewish Star necklace as I display my gold chai necklace.

The second event took place yesterday at CES when I visited with Bob Marley’s son Rohan at the House of Marley booth. House of Marley is a headphones company and part of the Marley family of brands including the Marley Mellow Mood drink that is owned by Bob Marley’s family and investors from the Detroit Jewish community including Gary Shiffman and Alon Kaufman. Rohan, a former football player for the University of Miami and the Canadian Football League, proudly displays a gold Jewish star around his neck. When I asked him why he wears a Jewish star I got a heartfelt ten-minute explanation of how his Rastafarian belief draws from both the Old Testament and the New Testament. He told me that the Jewish star is his way of reminding himself daily of the ethics of the Jewish biblical tradition and how that is the foundation of Christianity.

While some would be uncomfortable with gentiles wearing tzitzit or a Jewish star necklace, my feeling is that we Jews don’t have the trademark on such things. Yes, they are inherently Jewish in our time and in our culture, but what is preventing someone else from adopting those items and connecting their own narrative to them. Who says that only Jews can get married under a chuppah or dance the hora at a wedding? Who says that a Christian boy with Jewish ancestry can’t have a ceremony on his 13th birthday called a bar mitzvah? It might make some Jews uncomfortable, but that gut reaction should lead to a conversation about why it elicits that response.

My colleague, Rabbi Eliot Pearlson of Miami, provided me with some insightful links and images on such topics as specifically Christian tzitizit and tallit, Christian chuppas and ketubas (wedding contracts), South Koreans studying Talmud, and Christian Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. We are living in interesting times, but religions have historically borrowed and appropriated different traditions and rituals from each other.

Another one of my colleagues, Rabbi Joshua Ratner, offered that he takes exception with non-Jews “picking up rituals they (and often we) don’t understand just because they look cool. I have far less of an issue with imitation/syncretism if the object being ‘borrowed’ has some understood meaning that results in others wanting to borrow it, rather than its aesthetic content. But that just begs the question–to be Rabbis Without Borders, if we know that religious syncretism is a way of life, do we now have an obligation to educate the non-Jewish public as well as our particular Jewish communities?”

That comment reminded me of when I was a child and my father would let me borrow his tools. If you’re going to use my hammer, he would say, let me first show you how to use it correctly. But does borrowing something mean the borrower has to use it the same way the lender does? Shouldn’t everyone have the right to determine which religious rituals they want to use from other faiths and have the ability to put their own spin on them without criticism? As uncomfortable as that may make some of us, I think the answer is yes.

Here’s the clip from the “A Christian Bar Mitzvah” episode of The Sisterhood:

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

Larry Ritter: Modern Day Zionist and Israel Supporter

I spent the last week in Israel as part of a solidarity mission sponsored by the Masorti Foundation and the Rabbinical Assembly. The goal of the mission was for Conservative rabbis in North America to learn more about the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel and to show solidarity with the dozens of Masorti congregations throughout the country. The mission was subsidized by Israel Tour Connection (ITC), a New Jersey-based tour provider company headed by Larry Ritter. Spending time in Israel with Larry, I learned about his passion to bring thousands to Israel each year in order to support the Jewish country. The following is an article I wrote about Larry’s passion and principle objective in life. This was originally published on The Times of Israel and on the Huffington Post.

There are Zionists and there are lovers of Israel. Some are both.

On a United Jewish Appeal mission to Israel in 1982 Larry Ritter claims he became a full Jew. There was no conversion involved as he was born Jewish and raised in an Orthodox home. However, the Livingston, New Jersey native visited Israel for the first time that year and says he never fully felt Jewish until that experience. Thirty years later Ritter has had his passport stamped close to 100 times with the seal of the Jewish state.

Ritter, 69, firmly states that one cannot be a complete Jew without being a Zionist and loving the land of Israel. For that reason, he launched Israel Tour Connection (ITC) in 1989. Sitting at his kitchen table with his rabbi at the time, Samuel Cohen of Beth Shalom in Livingston, Ritter expressed his desire to help people get to Israel and have a taste of the memorable experience he first had earlier that decade. He wasn’t looking to start a travel agency, rather he wanted to become a reliable tour provider in an effort to help others feel the excitement and love for Israel.

Today, ITC sends over one hundred groups to Israel a year which translates to tens of thousands of pilgrims, both Jewish and Christian. They might be part of a synagogue, church or organizational mission or they might be part of a family traveling to Israel to celebrate a child’s bar or bat mitzvah in Jerusalem or atop Massada.

Ultimately, Jewish continuity is the banner Ritter waves in his effort to support Israel through tourism, one of the country’s largest industries. “My fear is that each new generation of Jews gets farther away from the Holocaust and they don’t have that communal memory to bring them closer to Israel. And drawing people closer to Israel is my core mission in life. I do this because I believe in it,” Ritter told me recently. In that vein his company identifies homogeneous groups to take to Israel. The majority of groups are from Conservative, Reform and Orthodox congregations throughout North America as well as family trips. However, the past decade has seen a steady increase in the number of Catholic, Christian and Evangelical groups Ritter has sent to the Holy Land. In a few weeks Ritter will accompany a group of African American tourists through the AME Church to Israel. Through the years not all of those groups have been homogeneous either. He has also brought interfaith delegations to Israel, building bridges between Christian Zionists and Jewish leaders.

The first time I traveled to Israel with Larry Ritter was in January 2003 when I was a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. As the U.S. was about to send troops to Iraq and Israel had once again been facing acts of terrorism, Ritter approached the Seminary and offered to subsidize a solidarity mission for students and faculty. After securing funding from the Ministry of Tourism and adding funds out of his own pocket, students were asked to pay only $300 for the four-day trip to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. At a time when Israel’s hotels were half empty Ritter helped over 100 students travel to Israel to show their support to their brothers and sisters in the Jewish state.

Fast forward ten years and I now find myself back in Israel with Ritter. This time Ritter determined it was necessary for North American Conservative rabbis to travel to Israel and show solidarity with their sister congregations throughout the country following the recent conflict with Gaza. Once again, Ritter helped subsidize the mission with his own funds. “Not only did I see a need to come to Israel following a challenging time for Israelis, but I knew how critical it was that Masorti (Conservative) congregations around Israel see that their movement’s rabbis from North America are willing to take time out of their busy schedules and come to Israel and give them strength,” Ritter explained.

On this most recent excursion, Ritter brought a duffle bag in addition to his own suitcase to Israel. Inside the duffle bag were two Torah scrolls to be donated to Masorti congregations in Israel. Not only does Ritter have a knack for finding the best hotel values, but he’s also developed a gift for locating Torah scrolls in American synagogues to be gifted to the small Israeli congregations that need them. As one rabbi who traveled with us in Israel this week put it, “What makes Larry so special is not only that he motivates people to come to Israel, but that he goes the extra mile.” Rabbi Harold Kravitz of Minnetonka, Minnesota continued, “He always wants to help. He’ll do whatever it takes to bring one more person to Israel or one more Torah to Israel for a fledgling congregation.”

With his staff of eleven, including his wife Marlene, in his Livingston, New Jersey office Ritter coordinates each trip with his satellite office in Israel and submits each itinerary to a “Situation Room” of the IDF to ensure the group’s safety. Each tour is custom designed based on the needs and desires of the traveler. Larry considers how many times the travelers have visited Israel in the past, what sites they might enjoy, and which areas of the country would have the deepest impact on them. Barbara Sutnick, ITC’s educational director in Israel explained, “Because of Larry’s vision, our goal is to bring to life all the wonder that is Israel through our tours – its places and its people, its past and its present.”

Each time he comes to Israel, Ritter feels like he’s home. “Israel is where I go to recharge my batteries,” he says. Although, his metaphorical batteries aren’t the only ones that get recharged while in Israel. Ritter’s two cellphones are constantly ringing as he makes arrangements with the airlines, various hotels, tour bus operators and other providers, as well as with religious leaders back in the U.S. eager to plan their next trip.

Through his Zionism and his love of helping people discover that same beauty and inspiration that he found in Israel thirty years ago, Larry Ritter is doing his part to keep Israel’s tourism industry vibrant and strong. Nothing seems to deter him from connecting young and old with the land of Israel. As he stated proudly, “So long as we have an Israel I’ll be sending people there.”

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

One Missing Yarmulke, Several New Friends

We tend to see the differences that separate us from other religious groups rather than the commonalities. That sounds so cliché, but it’s true.

When some Jews hear of an Islamic religious school, called a madrassa, they make assumptions about what might be taught there. They don’t take the time to even consider that the Arabic word madrassa is very closely related to the Hebrew word midrasha, a Jewish religious school.

And when some Jews see a Muslim man wearing a skullcap called a kufi, they make assumptions about his religious views, political sentiments, and opinions on a range of social issues. They tend to forget how similar the kufi is to our kippah, or yarmulke.

One day recently both of these similarities struck me. My plane landed at Chicago’s Midway Airport. It was an early morning flight and I felt like I had traveled back in time since I actually arrived at an earlier time in Chicago than when I had taken off in Detroit thanks to the one-hour time zone difference. During the flight, I fell into a deep sleep.

It wasn’t until I got into my rental car that I realized I wasn’t wearing my yarmulke, as I normally do. At some point during my “nap,” my yarmulke must have fallen off and was lost on the plane. I pulled over to the side of the rode and checked everywhere — pockets, carry-on suitcase, and briefcase. My yarmulke was nowhere to be found.

I was on my way to a small Illinois town south of Peoria to check out a large spice factory that was interested in kosher certification from my agency. I knew I couldn’t walk in there without a yarmulke on my head. I was on a tight schedule though and at a loss for what to do.

I called my wife back in Michigan who began researching if there were any synagogues between my current location and my destination in Pekin, Illinois. While she did that, I continued to drive and search the sides of the highway for any random Judaica store where I could purchase a replacement yarmulke. And that’s when it caught my eye.

Off the highway on what seemed to be a service road was a small mosque. Would that work, I wondered. After all, there’s really not much of a difference between the Muslim kufi and some of the larger yarmulkes that my sons wear to their Jewish school every day. Would a kufi be a better option for me than stopping at a gas station and buying a baseball cap? It was worth a shot.

I exited the highway and did a quick turnaround to try and find the mosque I had passed a few miles earlier. It would be my first time entering a mosque despite the fact that I live in Metro Detroit with its dense Muslim population and abundance of mosques. Alas, the doors of the mosque were locked and it was dark inside. I quickly Googled the address and called the phone number that was listed, but it just rang and rang. For no good reason, I knocked on the doors again and then left.

As I drove away from the mosque I spotted what looked like another mosque in the distance. Perhaps that was the administrative office I thought. Maybe they could sell me one of those Muslim skullcaps (I hadn’t yet learned the word kufi). It was worth a try. I turned down the next street and headed for the building with the star and crescent on the roof. I couldn’t find the street that led to a parking lot so I parked at an auto repair shop and walked across a field to the building.

The doors were locked but I could tell there were people inside. I rang a door bell and a very nice woman opened the door. I saw classrooms up and down the hallways and immediately determined that I had just entered a madrassa. Cute little children were in a large room singing songs and playing games. That was obviously the pre-school. Older children ran up the stairs to a second level of classrooms. I went up to the reception desk and explained my situation. Rather than giving some story about being curious about Islam and wanting a kufi, I explained that I was a rabbi who customarily wears a Jewish head covering and somehow lost it on my flight into Chicago. I asked if they could sell me a Muslim head covering.

She seemed confused by my request, but explained they had no store in the building and didn’t sell kufis. But just as I was about to head back to my rental car, the woman found another woman and shared my story. She told me to wait a moment and about five minutes later she returned with a large, black knitted kufi for me. I asked her how much it would cost and she insisted that it was free. I took out a ten-dollar bill and handed it to her as a donation. The idea that I had just made my first charitable gift to an Islamic school was not lost on me. With some trepidation I placed the kufi on my head and thanked the kind women as I left.

Just as I got back in the car and took a look at myself in the rear-view mirror my phone rang. It was my wife telling me that there was an Orthodox synagogue in Peoria. I told her I was wearing a Muslim kufi on my head and shared my story of the welcoming women at the madrassa.

I called the Orthodox synagogue which didn’t have a gift shop or any complimentary yarmulkes,but the woman on the phone referred me to the Reform congregation that shared a building and had a gift shop. When I called that number I got the recording telling me to call the husband-wife rabbis on their cell phone. I called and found myself talking with Rabbi Karen Bogard who told me that her husband Rabbi Daniel Bogard had dozens of yarmulkes and I could drive to their home to pick one out.

Rabbi Karen told me that she and her husband had just graduated from rabbinical school and begun to serve this small congregation in Peoria. We played the game of Jewish geography and learned we knew many people in common. After driving for another couple hours she called me back and directed me to a park close to their home where she would be with the couple’s newborn baby. I drove to the park, gave Rabbi Karen a hug, picked out a yarmulke and then began telling her the story of my visit to the Islamic school. I proudly showed her my new kufi.

While I wore the borrowed yarmulke to the visit at the spice factory, I still felt appreciative to the generous women at the madrassa who provided me with the kufi. It is a story I will continue to tell with pleasure. Losing a yarmulke led me on an adventure to a mosque, a madrassa and a neighborhood park where I met a new rabbinic colleague.

I keep that black kufi on the desk of my office and every once in a while I smile as I consider the similarities between Jews and Muslims. Perhaps, my kufi will serve as a reminder to others to seek out the connections with members of other religions and to explore what we share in common rather than what divides us.

Cross-posted to the Forward’s Arty Semite blog, MyJewishLearning’s Members of the Scribe blog, and the Jewish Book Council’s blog.

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

Mark Zuckerberg Gets Interfaith Married to Priscilla Chan

In the run up to the big Facebook initial public offering this past week, the media went Facebook crazy and tried to get interviews from everyone who has ever been connected to Mark Zuckerberg. Of course that included the rabbi of his childhood congregation.

In an article on The Scarsdale Daily website, Rabbi David Holtz of Temple Beth Abraham was quoted about his memories of Mark Zuckerberg attending his Reform temple in Tarrytown, New York. Rabbi Holtz reminisced about Zuckerberg’s family and recalled the Facebook founder’s “Star Wars” themed bar mitzvah fifteen years ago. Rabbi Holtz also mentioned a congregational trip to Israel that the Zuckerberg family took when Mark Zuckerberg was fifteen-years-old. Rabbi Holtz called Zuckerberg a thoughtful and insightful teen. I don’t know if Zuckerberg plans to donate any of his fortune to the synagogue of his youth, but hopefully, at the very least, he’ll be willing to help the congregation improve its website.

As if this week wasn’t already exciting enough for Zuckerberg with his billion dollar company going public, he also made a very important change to his Facebook profile’s status tonight when he updated it to “Married”. Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook Timeline now features the headline “Married Priscilla Chan” (with over 1 million likes). With that update, Zuckerberg is added to the list of famous Jews who have married outside of the faith.

Apparently the timing of the wedding had no connection to Facebook’s IPO. Rather, the couple was waiting for Priscilla Chan to graduate from medical school at the University of California San Francisco. Zuckerberg’s bride graduated on Monday from UCSF Medical School, which was coincidentally Zuckerberg’s 28th birthday.

Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan were married earlier today in a small ceremony in the backyard of his Palo Alto home. There is no word yet on who officiated the ceremony. However, I know the family has a nice relationship with Rabbi Laura Baum of Congregation Beth Adam and OurJewishCommunity.org (she’s also my colleague through the CLAL Rabbi’s Without Borders fellowship). Rabbi Baum officiated at the bris of Mark Zuckerberg’s nephew Asher a year ago. It is possible that Rabbi Baum officiated at the wedding through her connection with Zuckerberg’s sister and brother-in-law Randi Zuckerberg and Brent Tworetzky.

As an adult Mark Zuckerberg has claimed he is an atheist, so it is also possible that his wedding ceremony was not officiated by a rabbi, but was a completely secular ceremony conducted by a justice of the peace, or even a friend who became licensed in California for the occasion.

According to the AP, the wedding guests all thought they were coming to celebrate Priscilla Chan’s graduation from medical school, but were told after they arrived that the event was in fact a wedding. From the wedding photo released by Facebook, it does not appear that Mark Zuckerberg was wearing a yarmulke as he did at his sister Randi’s wedding to Tworetzky on a beach a few years ago.

I’m sure that more information will be released about Zuckerberg’s wedding this coming week. Of course, the big question for the Jewish community will be whether Zuckerberg and Chan plan to raise their future children in the Jewish faith. In other words, will a future Zuckerberg heir also have a “Star Wars” themed bar mitzvah?

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

Networking At Its Best

The term networking gets used a lot and it can mean many different things. In the technology field, networking refers to a number of interconnected computers, machines, or operations. When it refers to people, it means a group of people who exchange information, contacts, and experience for professional or social purposes. This can be a support network, a social network, or a trade network.

Sometimes networking of the human variety occurs in a planned way and other times it is spontaneous. At a recent Jewish camp conference, I had the privilege of spontaneously networking with two really talented individuals. As the technology blogger for The Jewish Week’s website, I have the opportunity to collaborate with other Jewish Week writers, but it is always over the phone or via email. So, it was great to see Julie Wiener, The Jewish Week’s associate editor and columnist, in person at the conference. I hadn’t seen Julie in person since she was a staff writer for the Detroit Jewish News. Julie writes about Jewish education and intermarriage among a host of other topics. It was wonderful to discuss in person with Julie some of the interesting issues that she has covered in the paper recently.

Comic book creator and cartoonist Jordan Gorfinkel
Julie Wiener, a writer and the associate editor of The Jewish Week

A short while later I was speaking with Jordan Gorfinkel, whose comic strip “Everything’s Relative” is featured in the print edition of The Jewish Week. We were discussing The Jewish Week when Julie came over and I introduced them to each other. It’s funny how three people who all contribute to the same newspaper/website have never met in person. I guess that’s the nature of the world today. Julie and Jordan continued to talk after I left and what happened is a true example of networking in the best sense of the term. Here is Julie’s description of her collaboration with Jordan as she wrote about it in a Jewish Week article titled “Interfaith Families are Funny Too”:

I have a confession to make. For a long time, I’ve been unfairly dismissive of the “Everything’s Relative” comic strip that appears in this paper. 

Too kitschy, too Borscht Belt, too Orthodox, I felt. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but the majority of American Jews are not, in fact, Orthodox.) 

Then this week I met Jordan Gorfinkel, the artist behind “Everything’s Relative,” for the first time and discovered he is not only a nice guy, but is quite eager to incorporate fresh content, fresh perspectives and more diversity into the strip. He just wants suggestions.

So, dear reader, I promised to brainstorm some ways to help make the strip feel more contemporary and inclusive. I have some thoughts — but, in the spirit of inclusivity and big tents, I officially welcome your suggestions as well, either in the comments, via e-mail to me (julie.inthemix@gmail.com) or directly to Jordan (gorf@jewishcartoon.com).  

Here are some new characters I’d like to see: 

-An intermarried couple raising their children as Jews.
-A non-white Jew.
-A gay or lesbian Jew.
-A Russian or Israeli Jew.
-A Jew by choice (or better yet, a character who is going through the process of converting). 

Here are a few scenarios I’d like to see: 

-The intermarried couple grapples with competing expectations, stereotypes and misunderstandings from family members of each faith, revolving around the wedding, lifecycle events, holidays etc.
-The intermarried couple (or the convert-in-process) take a Judaism 101 class together.
-A character visits Israel for the first time on Birthright.
-A character becoming more religious and a character becoming less religious.
-A Hebrew school teacher or principal dealing with the joys and frustrations of trying to engage kids and their parents.
-Family members arguing about Israel, particularly its policies vis a vis the Palestinians.
-Family members arguing about the presidential election and whether or not to support President Barack Obama.

Now, that is what I call great collaboration. And serious networking!

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

December Dilemma and Decorative Hanukkah Lights

Each winter the “December Dilemma” becomes a hot topic. This month, it seems like it’s hotter than ever with every rabbi, Jewish educator, social worker, intermarried parent, grandparent of interfaith grandchildren, and children of intermarried parents writing about the subject. Perhaps the topic isn’t any more popular this year than in years past, but just about anyone who wants to publish their opinion on the subject can now do so thanks to the openness of the Web.

Jordana Horn took the harsh stance that families should not celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas. Writing on the Kveller blog, Horn opens with the warning that “There is a good chance that this post will make you hate me. I don’t want to be hated but feel I should put this out there. Please do comment and do not take this post as insulting you: it is simply my viewpoint. The fact that I feel the need to put a warning on a blog post is, in and of itself, terrifying.” I don’t believe Jordana received any death threats after telling families they can’t have it both ways and celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah together, but there were many comments that emanated from hurt feelings. Kveller even posted an opposing viewpoint in response to Jordana’s opinion from a woman whose “agnostic family celebrates both Jewish and Christian holidays, despite the fact that such cross-practice is technically anathema to both religions.”

One interesting article written about the December Dilemma is by Paul Golin of the Jewish Outreach Institute and the co-author of How to Raise Jewish Children Even When You’re Not Jewish Yourself. Golin argues that people should stop telling intermarried couples what to do and what not to do during the winter holiday season.

Now is the time of year when my wife and I renew our annual, uncomfortable conversation about why we will never have a Christmas tree in our home, despite her having grown up with one. I’m fairly crummy at explaining my reasoning, but we eventually remind ourselves that all marriages require give-and-take, and this is one time where she’s giving and I’m taking.

However, I’ve never felt more like getting a Christmas tree than this past week, thanks to the trend in Jewish media of non-intermarried Jews telling intermarried Jews not to have Christmas trees. Articles like these make me want to put up a Christmas tree just to symbolize my defiance of self-appointed assimilation police.

After reading these opinions I raised the question on my Facebook page: “Should intermarried families celebrate Christmas?” The respondents were mostly Jews by Choice who explained that while they don’t have a Christmas tree or observe Christmas at their home, they do visit Christian relatives on Christmas and take part in the holiday’s customs out of respect for family. One woman wrote, “We do both, and teach respect for all holidays around this time of year. Hanukkah is religious for us, christmas cultural and respectful of the grandparents who are christian. So far, no problems although lots of discussions.”

One question I often receive during this time of year has to do with affixing Hanukkah themed lights on the house. This question was raised by New Jersey Jewish News columnist Johanna Ginsburg in her 2003 article “To light or not to light.” Many people get upset when they see “holiday lights” on a Jewish home. These holiday lights usually take the form of blue and white (somehow the official colors of Judaism) lights that could easily be mistaken for Christmas lights. In Ginsburg’s article the example was decorating the exterior of the house with LED lights in the shape of dreidels. In my opinion, hanging Hanukkah light displays outside ones home should not be cause for the alarm.

The commandment of Hanukkah, as dictated in the Talmud, is Pirsume Nisa (to publicize the miracle of Hanukkah). We do this by lighting the chanukkiah and placing it in the window facing the street for all to see. In fact, this public religious display is a sine qua non for the proper performance of this mitzvah. Putting our Hanukkah candles in the window (or decorating our home with flashing lights in the form of dreidels or otherwise) is certainly a way to publicize the miracle of Hanukkah.

We should also be grateful that we live in a country and at a time when we are able to freely publicize the miracle of Hanukkah. I really don’t see the problem if some families choose to publicize the miracle of Hanukkah by decorating their homes with lights for a couple weeks in the winter (they should of course remember to put their lit Hanukkah candles in the window too). And if families that have non-Jewish relatives choose to join them on Christmas as they’re celebrating their holiday as a show of respect, then that seems acceptable as well. We live in a time when most Jewish families in America include some non-Jews as well. It would be wonderful if the “December Dilemma” stopped being such a dilemma. It would certainly make the holidays a less stressful time for everyone involved.

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

My Teacher Rabbi Burt Visotzky Does Dinner with President Barack Obama

It’s not everyday that you know someone who gets to have a meal with the President of the United States. Last week, one of my favorite teachers (if I don’t say “one of” I’m bound to offend) had just that honor.

Rabbi Burt Visotzky, whose Midrash courses at the Jewish Theological Seminary I thoroughly enjoyed, was invited to the White House for the annual Iftar dinner and had the privilege of sitting at the President’s table.

This year the Jewish month of Av coincides with the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, a time when pious Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset to show their devotion to Allah. After dark, they break their daylong fast with an evening meal known as the Iftar. President Thomas Jefferson hosted the first Iftar dinner at the White House and it became an annual tradition under President Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and is now hosted by President Barack Obama.

This year’s White House Iftar meal was held on August 10 with approximately 120 guests, including two Jewish people in addition to Rabbi Visotzky. Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren (pictured with me at right) and Bahraini Ambassador Houda Ezra Ebrahim Nonoo.

According to a JTS press release, Rabbi Visotzky sat at President Obama’s table and brought the president up-to-date on JTS’s most recent and noted Jewish-Muslim dialogue programs, along with JTS’s other forms of Jewish-Muslim engagement, including 2010’s two-day workshop entitled “Judaism and Islam in America” and this past May’s “Our Better Angels,” a three-part program that anticipated the 10th anniversary of 9/11 through Jewish, Christian, and Muslim discussions on the themes of tragedy, mourning, and healing.

While it’s usually teachers who are proud of their students, I must say that I feel much pride for my teacher Rabbi Burt Visotzky’s devotion to Jewish-Muslim dialogue and his great honor last week.

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

Is Benjamin Millepied Jewish?

Is Benjamin Millepied Jewish? That seems to be the question of the day. Natalie Portman, who starred in “Black Swan” along with three other Jewish actresses all playing ballerinas (Mila Kunis, Winona Ryder and Barbara Hershey), will marry Benjamin Millepied and have his baby.

Perez Hilton broke the news earlier today that not only is Natalie Portman now engaged to marry her choreographer from “Black Swan,” but that she is also pregnant. Now, Googlers the world over want to know if the Jewish/Israeli actress is marrying within the faith. Turns out that the French Benjamin Millepied is not an MOT.

According to the Israeli online paper Ha’aretz, the 29-year-old Israeli-born actress and Millepied, a well-regarded ballet dancer and choreographer, met during the making of Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s psychological thriller that stars Portman as a ballet dancer. Portman has been nominated for best actress by the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild. Millepied played a small on-screen role in the film as a dancer.

Update: While Cyberspace is buzzing about whether Natalie Portman’s beau is a “Member of the Tribe” or not (ABC News reports his faith is unknown), New York City-based writer Marla Garfield is working the conspiracy theory angle. She wrote on Facebook: “I doubt that Millepied is even that guy’s real last name. In French, it means ‘a thousand feet,’ and the dude plays a dancer in ‘Black Swan.’ That’s just too ridiculous to be real. I bet his last name is Schwartzenbergerfeldowitz or something.”

Cross-Posted to the “Rabbi J in the D” blog at Community Next.

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

Pastor Henry Covington Dies

Mitch Albom has been writing more eulogies lately than most rabbis. I was deeply moved Sunday after reading Albom’s beautiful memorial for his sister (technically his wife’s sister, but he lovingly removed the “in-law” title), who died after battling breast cancer recently.

Yesterday, Albom traveled to New York City with Reverend Henry Covington to appear on NBC’s “Today Show” together. Covington, the pastor of Pilgrim Church/I Am My Brother’s Keeper ministries in Detroit, was featured prominently in Albom’s best-selling book last year, “Have a Little Faith.”

Sadly, Henry Covington passed away Tuesday night at 53 in New York, his hometown. Covington’s church was well-known for the giant hole in its roof, which led Albom to create the Hole in the Roof foundation. As the driving force behind the fundraising efforts, Albom was able to help have the hole in the church roof repaired.

I had the great opportunity to meet Henry in October 2009 at the Fox Theater in Detroit when Mitch Albom brought many of his friends together to raise money for the I Am My Brother’s Keeper ministries in Detroit. While it was great to meet such celebrities as Dave Barry, Anita Baker and the late Ernie Harwell, the biggest treat was talking to Rev. Covington who truly became a local hero in Detroit.

Mitch Albom posted a statement on his Web site, announcing Henry Covington’s death: “Henry was a dear friend, an inspiring pastor, and a very kind soul. He took care of those who were ignored by others. He opened his home and his church to those who needed him most. And he gave thanks each day for the opportunity to do so.” Covington is survived by his wife, Annette, and their four children.

UPDATE: Mitch Albom has published his obituary for Henry Covington on the Detroit Free Press website.

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

Rabbis’ Attendance at Interfaith Weddings

My op-ed in the Forward last month has generated much debate. Many of the comments I’ve received, both personally and on the Web, have missed the point of my argument.

First and foremost, I was surprised by the number of heated comments by Orthodox Jews who were obviously critical of my position. (Note: I was surprised by the number of Orthodox Jews who took the time to comment, but not by the content of their comments.) Many of them erroneously referred to this as a Halakhic (Jewish legal) matter. I would agree that a rabbi officiating at a wedding between a Jew and a non-Jew is a Halakhic matter, but sitting in the audience as a guest is not. Yes, there are issues of mar’it ayin — a rabbi seen at an interfaith ceremony raises questions of perceived acceptance, but attending the ceremony (or reception) alone is not a breach of Halakhah.

The issue I wrote about is an issue specifically within the Conservative Movement that only affects rabbis who are members of the Rabbinical Assembly (RA). My argument is simply that the RA should remove the policy prohibiting RA members from attending interfaith wedding ceremonies. Currently, the policy reads “Rabbis may not officiate at, participate in, or attend an intermarriage” (Rule III:d). I argue that officiation and participation are different from attendance and should therefore be separated.

Further, as every Conservative rabbi knows, the Vaad Hakavod (ethics committee) does not enforce the attendance at interfaith weddings restriction. In fact, there’s a general understanding that it doesn’t even apply when it’s the wedding of a close family member. Further, the Vaad Hakavod does not go out looking for members violating the code. If they receive a report, they may or may not choose to look into it. From what I’ve been told (from a reliable source), no one reports on RA member rabbis attending interfaith wedding ceremonies. They do receive reports of RA rabbis officiating at said ceremonies. However, before they have the chance to sanction these rabbis, they resign their membership from the Rabbinical Assembly.

To clarify my point, I take exception with three facts.

1) The RA’s Code of Religious Practice lists attendance in the exact same ruling as officiation. Those are two separate matters and shouldn’t be in the same rule, let alone the same sentence.

2) I don’t believe that an unenforced rule should remain on the books simply to give its members an “excuse” when they don’t want to do something. A member of the RA who makes the decision (on principle) to not attend interfaith ceremonies should explain his/her principle when invited (or not explain the rationale and just decline the invitation). It takes backbone to uphold ones principles rather than using an unenforced ruling as an excuse.

3) While there are individuals who hold by the notion that rules are meant to be broken (especially rules that historically haven’t been enforced), there are individuals who strictly follow rules. Thus, there are Conservative rabbis who would refuse to go to their own child’s wedding (or sibling’s, best friend’s, etc.) because they are members of an organization that forbids such activity. This seems to compete with the concept of shalom bayit and common sense.

Overall, the feedback I’ve received from my colleagues in the RA has been positive — especially among those colleagues under a certain age. Some colleagues in the RA agree with my argument, but wished I hadn’t publicized the matter in the press. My belief is that issues such as this rarely change when handled internally. Already, discussions are underway to rescind this policy in the RA and this conversation is continuing on several blogs including Jewschool and Chopping Wood, the personal blog of Orthodox rabbi Reuven Spolter.

Chelsea Clinton’s wedding has generated a whole new discourse on intermarriage for American Jewry, from Reform to Orthodox. It will be interesting to see what the future brings.

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