Birthright Israel Does 180 on Prior Israel Travel Policy

Part of my job as the associate director of University of Michigan Hillel Foundation in the mid-Aughts was to interview college students for Birthright Israel. On several occasions I had the unfortunate responsibility to explain to Jewish students eager to claim their free 10-day Israel trip that they did not qualify because they had already traveled to Israel with a peer educational trip. That meant that because their parents had spent upwards of $6,000 for them to spend a month in the Jewish Holy Land, they couldn’t claim the Jewish community’s gift that their peers were getting — a completely free Israel experience. It was as if they were being punished for having experienced Israel in high school or on an eighth grade trip with their Jewish day school.
Birthright Israel does 180 on previous Peer Educational Trip Experience Policy

Today, however, Taglit-Birthright Israel significantly changed its policy regarding Jewish youth who had already visited Israel on a peer tour. On the Birthright Israel Facebook page, the world-wide organization posted, “Guess What? Those who participated on peer educational trips to Israel prior to turning 18 years of age are now welcome to apply! Taglit-Birthright Israel will have specific details on eligibility posted on the website the week prior to registration opening on February 19th, 2014.”
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Silentium: Israeli Tech Startup Wants Silence

It’s no secret that Israel is the Silicon Valley of the Middle East. With thousands of tech companies and start-ups, Israel has become just as well-known as a center for technology innovation as it is for hummus.

Between two visits to Israel earlier this year, I made my annual pilgrimage to the Holy Land for techies – International CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas. Before heading out to the annual convention for “everything technology” I spent some time looking at the Israeli startups that would be exhibiting at the show. One particular company caught my eye, or rather my ear.

Like me, you have probably never heard of Israeli tech company Silentium before. But that will soon change. This company aims to fix something that many people didn’t even realize was a problem. Background noise. We often find ourselves talking loudly to someone standing right in front of us because we have become so used to the background noises of machines and electronics. We live in a very noisy world with a lot of noise pollution, but we’ve become accustomed to these hums and hisses.

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Ani Ma’amin – The Most Meaningful Yom Hashoah

Today is Yom Hashoah, the annual day of remembrance for victims of the Holocaust. While it is still morning it has already been the most meaningful Yom Hashoah experience for me.I actually had a feeling that Yom Hashoah 2013 wouldn’t be like past experiences. On Thursday, February 7 of this year the Shoah hit me like never before. I was freezing cold as I stood over the ravine at Babi Yar in Ukraine with two dozen of my rabbinic colleagues. Our shoes sunk into the snow as we stared out into the forest where 33,771 Jews were killed in a single operation between September 29–30, 1941.
The memorial at Babi Yar

 

This was not my first visit to Babi Yar. I had visited there eight years earlier, but this time was different. I have visited concentration camps and seen gas chambers, but this was different. Our brief memorial program consisted of lighting candles, throwing flowers into the ravine, reading poems, singing songs and reciting prayers in tribute to the memory of those who perished on that site. But it was the music that did it for me.

So too was the case for me yesterday in the late afternoon. It was the music. My friend Hazzan Daniel Gross, the cantor at Adat Shalom Synagogue, is a gifted opera singer, composer and musicologist. The grandson of Holocaust survivors, Dan recognized there was a need for a Yom Hashoah liturgy so as part of his senior presentation in the H.L. Miller Cantorial School of the Jewish Theological Seminary he wrote one. Continue reading

The Last Year in Jewish Technology

Once again The Jewish Week asked me to try and summarize the last year in technology from a Jewish angle. This was not an easy task since technology is increasingly so much a part of our lives and it affects all areas of our world including religion. I decided to come up with the ten big Jewish/Technology-related stories. What follows is what I submitted to The Jewish Week:

A few years ago when I was asked to start the Jewish Techs blog for The Jewish Week, I was concerned there wouldn’t be enough material to write about. After all, there are a lot of worthwhile news stories about technology and a lot of interesting topics in the Jewish world, but I wasn’t sure there would be enough areas of integration. Boy, was I wrong.

Image Source: RustyBrick

Religion in general and Judaism in particular are very much enmeshed in the field of technology. As our world becomes more dependent on technology, our Jewish lives are adapting as well. Jewish visionaries are at the head of the tech revolution and hi-tech innovation has been a driving force in Israel’s economic growth in the 21st century. The Internet and tech gadgets have revolutionized Jewish learning in ways never imagined before. A set of the Talmud that once occupied an entire shelf now resides on a Smartphone with full search capabilities. The Dead Sea Scrolls were once only available to those able to travel to Jerusalem, but they are now available to the world on the Web. And it is no longer unusual that the homebound are participating in High Holy Day services virtually.

In early January at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Jewish technology leaders featured prominently. CES is produced by the Consumer Electronics Association led by Gary Shapiro, whose new book Ninja Innovation is sure to become a best seller in the tech world. Through the convention halls of CES were Jewish owners of technology stores and companies, inventors, and industry leaders. Innovators from Israel were seen making deals with investors, a daily minyan was convened, and the Las Vegas Chabad supervised a lunch stand.

In 2012 there were many Jewish-related stories in technology. I put together a list of the top ten stories of the year (in no particular order). To stay informed about the intersection of Jewish life and technology this year, connect with the Jewish Techs blog at http://thejewishweek.com/blogs/jewish-techs.

1. ISRAEL’S GAZA WAR AND SOCIAL MEDIA
For the first time in Israel’s existence the country waged a parallel war on the Internet. During its military situation in Gaza, the IDF focused part of its attention on social networking uploading videos of its operation to YouTube, informing its following on Facebook and posting a barrage of updates to Twitter.

2. SUPER STORM SANDY, SYNAGOGUES AND THE SOCIAL NETWORKS
The East Coast’s found itself challenged by super storm Sandy for several weeks. Synagogues in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut used social media to keep its congregants informed about everything from relief efforts to places to recharge cellphones and alternative locations of Shabbat services. During the week-long power outages, some synagogues had life-cycle events like weddings and bar mitzvahs to contend with.

3. AGUNA CASE HITS FACEBOOK
A drawn out, messy divorce case quickly went from a private matter to a world-wide public debate. Aharon Friedman, a staffer for a Michigan congressman, refused to grant his ex-wife Tamar Epstein a Jewish divorce. Online petitions and then a highly trafficked Facebook page put pressure on Friedman, including a call for him to be summarily fired. It was the first time a Jewish domestic dispute had gone to social networking to be resolved.

4. SOCIAL MEDIA’S INFLUENCE DURING THE ELECTION
Jewish Republican voters have been growing their ranks and looking to the Internet to try to convince their Democratic co-religionists. Never before has social media been so influential in a presidential election. Friends were attacking friends on Facebook for their political views. News articles and YouTube videos were posted on each other’s Facebook walls. Back-and-forth tweets were shot around Cyberspace debating whether President Obama or Governor Romney would be the better choice for Israel.

5. APPLE’S QUESTIONABLE JERUSALEM STATUS
The popular computer and phone company found itself being questioned by pro-Israel supporters for neglecting to associate Jerusalem as the capital of Israel on its faulty map application. When Apple released its new operating system, iOS6, it didn’t show Jerusalem as the capital of Israel although every other country on the map had its capital listed.

6. JEWISH LED GOOGLE AVOIDS CHARGES IT’S A MONOPOLY
Microsoft and a coalition of niche search engines accused Google, founded by Jewish Internet gurus Sergei Brin and Larry Page, of unfair search practices for prominently displaying some results at the top of some inquiries. Google, which began as an Internet search company but has ventured into many other sectors, spent the better part of the year fighting those accusations. The Federal Trade Commission absolved Google of monopoly accusations early in 2013 for prioritizing its own products in search results

7. WAZE APP AND SALE RUMORS
The biggest tech story coming out of Israel this year was about a little GPS app company called Waze. The mobile app, featuring turn-by-turn navigation was developed by the Israeli start-up Waze Mobile and differs from traditional GPS navigation software because its community-driven. The app learns from users’ driving times to provide routing and real-time traffic updates. When Apple’s mapping application had flaws, Apple’s CEO recommended that iPhone users download Waze. After growing to more than 40 million users in 2012 there were rumors that Facebook and then Apple were interested in buying Waze (for some $40 billion), but neither deal panned out.

8. DEAD SEA SCROLLS AND SCHOTTENSTEIN TALMUD GO VIRTUAL
If asked what two collections from the Jewish textual tradition would be most beneficial in a fully searchable, digital format scholars would come to consensus over the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Talmud. The Israel Museum’s Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Project, a partnership with Google, launched in 2012 allows users to examine and explore the most ancient manuscripts from Second Temple times at a level of detail never imagined before. Five Dead Sea Scrolls have been digitized so far and they can be searched through queries on Google.com. What had been hidden and lost in a cave for generations are now online for the world to see.

Earlier this year, Artscroll announced the launch of the ArtScroll Digital Library and the first mobile app they will launch will be the ArtScroll Schottenstein Talmud. The app will offer all of the necessary tools students of the Talmud would want as they study and debate the ancient text. The app was produced by Rusty Brick and features page syncing, place tracking, extra hand, page fusion, hybrid page, floating translation, quick scroll, integrated notes, and page mapping color coding. The Apple version is already available and an Android version is expected to be released this year.

9. RALLY AGAINST INTERNET AT CITI FIELD
In May, more than 40,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews attend a sellout rally in Citi Field, home of the New York Mets. The attendees came to protest the growth of the Internet, which they believe is a moral detriment to their religious way of life. Rabbis spoke to the crowd about the perils of the Internet and cautioned those who are required to use the Internet for their work to use a filter so as to avoid unseemly content.

10. TEXTING HIGH HOLIDAY SERVICES
Rosh Hashanah 2012 marked the first time that several rabbis around the country encouraged their congregants to take out their SmartPhones and use them. In most congregations, participants were reminded to put their tech gadgets away, but in some synagogues like Rabbi Amy Morrison’s Reform temple in Miami Beach she told the worshippers to “Take those phones out.” This innovation was seen as a way to engage the crowd of digitally connected 20- to 30-year-olds. No doubt tweeting and texting during religious services will only become more prevalent in the years to come, right or wrong.

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

The Crime of Wearing a Tallit

Empathy is never easy. As a man, I confess that I have struggled to be empathetic to the cause of the Women of the Wall (Nashot HaKotel). This group of women has been coming to the Kotel Hama’arivi (Western Wall) in the Old City of Jerusalem for close to a quarter century to pray in protest of the religious freedom they lack.

From thousands of miles away I have followed their plight after each Rosh Chodesh (new month) prayer service they conduct in the relatively small women’s section of the Kotel. In the past year or so I’ve read about the women who are detained or arrested for having the nerve to wear a tallit (prayer shawl) at the Kotel, which according to Israel law is to be treated as an Orthodox synagogue. While I took interest in their civil disobedience and was supportive of their efforts, I felt they were too focused on the Western Wall when in fact they were being allowed to hold their prayer services (women only or mixed) at the Southern Wall (Robinson’s Arch) which was historically more significant anyway.

Our group of male rabbis before heading down to the Kotel plaza

And then all that changed this morning. Together with about a dozen of my male rabbinic colleagues we woke up well before dawn and walked from our Jerusalem hotel to the Old City. I wrapped myself in my tallit, wound my tefillin (phylacteries) around my left arm and on my head, and joined my colleagues at the mechitza (dividing wall) next to the women’s section. Rather than holding our own separate service we joined the women in their prayers. Several of the women proudly wore tallitot and I even saw one woman wearing tefillin. It was exhilarating to watch the women begin to spontaneously dance during Hallel, the joyous, musical psalms for Rosh Chodesh.

Conservative Rabbis Robyn Fryer Bodzin and Debra Cantor at the Kotel 

Israeli police — both men and women — patrolled the women’s section. At first I thought this was to ensure their safety as angry protesters have thrown chairs at them in the past, but as I watched I could tell that one of the police officers was warning some of the women wearing tallitot. One female police officer videotaped the entire service, likely to prove that it was handled accordingly. A young man who works at the Kotel began moving shtenders (lecturns) and tables to separate us men from the rest of the men’s section, in effect creating three prayer areas.

At the conclusion of the Hallel service, I saw some people begin to exit toward the plaza behind the women’s section. I headed over there and saw two of the Israeli paratroopers who were in that iconic photograph at the newly reclaimed Kotel in 1967 after the Six Day War. The men were being interviewed by Israeli media and talking openly about how they liberated the Old City of Jerusalem so that all people would be free to pray there, not only the ultra-Orthodox. It was remarkable to see these paratroopers at the Kotel after seeing that powerful photo since I was a young boy. The Kotel immediately came to take on a whole new meaning for me. And a moment later I developed a much stronger connection to the plight of the Women at the Wall.

An ad hoc partition is created to separate our group in the Men’s Section

I turned around and saw two of my friends and fellow rabbis were being escorted away from the Kotel Plaza by a police officer. Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin and Rabbi Debra Cantor called me over as they were walking behind a female police officer. They told me that she had taken their passports and was going to detain them at the police station. Robyn asked if I would stay with them for as long as I could because they didn’t know what was going to happen. Immediately I began to feel concern for them. The officer wasn’t saying anything and wouldn’t explain where they were going. I was still wearing my tallit and tefillin and feeling guilty that my colleagues were getting in trouble for something that I take for granted.

Israeli paratroopers who liberated the Old City in 1967 with Anat Hoffman

Before coming to Israel, I traveled through Kiev, Ukraine with several rabbis including Rabbis Fryer Bodzin and Cantor. We spoke to Jewish people there who were forbidden from practicing their Judaism freely in the Former Soviet Union. They would have been arrested for being seen in public wearing a tallit during the Communist era. In Jerusalem this past Friday night we ate dinner with Joseph Begun, who was a Prisoner of Zion in the Former Soviet Union. He shared his amazing story with us, telling us of the years he spent in a Russian jail for the “crime” of being Jewish. This morning we met with former Refusenik Natan Sharansky on the 27th anniversary of his arrival to Israel. He has been charged by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with coming up with a solution to this problem at the Kotel. Israel was intended to be a place of salvation for the Jewish people. It is the Jewish capital and no Jew should be refused her right to religious practice as our fellow Jews were in the FSU.

Rabbis Fryer Bodzin and Cantor have provided an important example of civil disobedience. To young girls about to become bat mitzvah, these rabbis have articulated why they shouldn’t take their Jewish identity for granted. They have demonstrated to me why it is so critical that women feel comfortable acting as Jews in Israel. I have tremendous respect for both of them and they should be applauded for their courage. After this morning, the Women of the Wall have my respect and my support. Religious freedom must be a priority for Israel. The alternative will have horrific repercussions for the Jewish people.

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

Israel’s The Voice: When Religion Goes Too Far

I always try to be careful to not criticize other’s religious convictions, the way in which they interpret and practice religious law, or the decisions they make about what they cannot do based on their religious practice. I did, however, find it upsetting that a 17-year-old young woman in Israel was suspended from her school for singing on a reality TV show.

At issue was the prohibition on women singing in public that some Jews follow. Kol isha, or “a woman’s voice,” is derived from the Talmud and is one of the laws that fits into the category of ervah (literally “nakedness”). But the issue of a man listening to a woman’s singing voice isn’t so clear cut. While some Jewish legal authorities claim that kol isha applies at all times, others say the prohibition doesn’t apply to a recorded voice. That would be the case on the Israeli version of “The Voice,” a reality TV competition show.

Ophir Ben-Shetreet Israel The Voice
Ophir Ben-Shetreet was being coached by Israeli singer Aviv Geffen

This young Israeli student, Ophir Ben-Shetreet, didn’t seem to have an issue with singing on this TV show and any of the men who felt it posed a threat to their religious convictions had every opportunity to not watch the episode. However, rather than tuning out the rabbis of her religious girls’ high school in Ashdod, Israel, suspended the 12th grader from school for two weeks. Just for singing in public.

An interesting side note in this controversy is that the Israeli Ministry of Education could not allow Ben-Shetreet to officially be punished because there is a rule that says students cannot be punished for performing on a television show. In light of that rule, Ben-Shetreet’s parents had to be the ones initiating the punishment, despite their position that she didn’t do anything wrong.

Again, I do not condone criticizing other’s religious views unless they pose a human rights violation. Certain laws that make women second-class citizens I believe fall into that category. This young woman singing on a television show is her right. The men who feel it is undignified, immodest, or immoral to listen to her beautiful voice have a right to feel that way. And they also have a right to avoid watching or listening to the show. Punishing the young woman for her participation, however, seems wrong and unfair.

The laws of ervah (which include various interpretations of the need for a woman to cover her hair) are not clear cut. There are some religious Jewish communities that would never allow a woman to lead religious services, but wouldn’t object to a woman singing the national anthem or a secular song. In this case, Ben-Shetreet’s participation in the Israeli version of “The Voice” had no effect on her religious day school.

I understand the need for modesty laws in religion and I appreciate any interpretation of any religion that strives for modesty. However, these modesty laws must be kept in check. In Judaism we run the risk of taking these laws too far and then in an effort to be modest, the misinterpretation of the laws cause immoral acts. Banning a female high school student from singing on a reality TV show is certainly an example of this. Ben-Shetreet is a talented young girl with a beautiful voice. Suspending her from school for two weeks in the name of her religion for doing nothing wrong will have negative effects for her and countless other young woman who want to embrace Judaism; not be shunned because of it.

I really liked something that Ben-Shetreet said during an interview on the show. “The Torah wants music to make people happy, and I think it’s possible to do both, which is why I came to the show.”

I couldn’t imagine silencing my daughter from singing in public. I would of course celebrate her solo singing opportunities on stage rather than denigrate her for them. There are many religious laws — not only in Judaism but in other religions as well — that should be respected even if many of us find them problematic. It is when religious laws, like in this case, are used illogically to keep people from attaining their full potential and achieving their goals. No one was going to get hurt by Ophir Ben-Shetreet performing on this reality TV show. But I’m afraid the Jewish religion took a hit because of the decision to punish her.

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

Tu Bishvat, a Super Bowl Ad and Israel’s Soda Water Company

This Shabbat is one of the four Jewish New Years set forth in the Mishna. Tu Bishvat, or Jewish Arbor Day, occurs on the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Sh’vat. In addition to being a birthday for trees, the holiday is deeply connected to the agricultural cycle of the Land of Israel and in modern days has become a day for celebrating the environment and reminding us of our responsibility as good stewards of the land.

At the core of this ethic for environmental stewardship is the concept of bal tashchit – the ban on wonton destruction of the earth’s resources. This environmental principle, which includes waste reduction, should be a focus on the holiday of Tu Bishvat.

Daniel Birnbaum of SodaStream with Conservative Rabbis in Israel (Masorti Mission 2012)
Daniel Birnbaum of SodaStream speaking to Conservative rabbis in Israel

This value was articulated in a presentation I heard last month while I was visiting Israel. Together with a dozen of my rabbinic colleagues, we toured the headquarters of SodaStream, the makers of consumer home carbonated water products. Daniel Birnbaum, the CEO of publicly traded SodaStream, explained to our group the positive environmental impact of his products. “This is the new way to do soda. We’re revolutionizing it with a smarter way to enjoy soft drinks.”

In his presentation to our group, Birnbaum showed how SodaStream reduces the amount of packaging waste from cans and bottles. The company, he explained, also eliminates much of the pollution caused by the transport of bottled beverages. SodaStream has sponsored initiatives promoting waste reduction and improved quality of tap water. In his PowerPoint presentation, Birnbaum explained the alarming statistic that “460 billion bottles and cans manufactured every year, of which the vast majority are dumped as waste across parks, oceans and landfills.”

SodaStream's Daniel Birnbaum with Rabbi Jason Miller
With SodaStream’s Daniel Birnbaum at the Mishor Adumim production facility

In its most aggressive marketing campaign alerting the international community to the negative effects of plastic bottle waste, SodaStream displayed a 318-square foot cage in several countries. The cage contained 10,657 empty bottles and cans showing that the waste produced by one family over the course of five years from beverage containers can be replaced by a single SodaStream bottle. The “Cage Campaign” has now been on display in over 30 countries.

This aggressive marketing campaign erupted into controversy when one of SodaStream’s cages was erected in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2012. Coca-Cola demanded that SodaStream remove all of the empty products from the cages bearing Coca-Cola’s trademark logos and threatened to sue SodaStream if they didn’t comply. Birnbaum not only rebuffed Coca-Cola’s demands, but he went on the offensive by ordering the display of one of those cages right outside Coca-Cola’s headquarters in Atlanta.

Controversy is obviously something Birnbaum isn’t afraid of. Over the years he has taken a lot of heat for the location of SodaStream’s world headquarters in the territories outside of Jerusalem in the West Bank settlement of Mishor Adumim. The European Union’s highest court ruled in 2010 that SodaStream was not entitled to claim a “Made in Israel” exemption from EU customs payments because of the company’s primary manufacturing plant is technically located outside of Israel. Human right’s groups like Peace Now have long objected to SodaStream’s operations in the territories and publicly disparage SodaStream on the web.

Pro-Palestinian activists who advocate consumer boycotts of goods produced outside of Israel’s green line have protested SodaStream around the globe, saying the company has profited from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. They say Palestinian workers suffer from low wages and poor working conditions at SodaStream, but Birnbaum argues that none of that is true. For his part, Birnbaum claims he is a strong proponent of human rights, and that thanks to SodaStream thousands of local Palestinians in Mishor Adumim have good paying jobs. Those workers, he explains, would not be able to support their families without their jobs in SodaStream’s manufacturing plant.

In an effort to capitalize on SodaStream’s success, Birnbaum will be spending approximately $3.8 million on a 30-second spot during next month’s Super Bowl. Its recent “Setting the Bubbles Free” commercial, showing hundreds of soft drink bottles exploding when a person uses a SodaStream machine, was banned in the UK when television advertising monitoring agency Clearcast argued that it denigrates the bottled drink industry. Birnbaum is considering legal action in the UK and has countered publicly by asking, “Are we really being censored for helping to save the environment? This might be the first time in the world when an environmental approach has been shut down by the media to protect a traditional industry.” It will be interesting to see what Birnbaum and SodaStream have in store for the over 111 million Super Bowl viewers around the world.

I was quite impressed listening to Birnbaum speak passionately about SodaStream’s products and its environmental concern for the global good. The former CEO of Nike Israel (he also gained experience at Pillsbury and Procter & Gamble), was raised in a home in which strong Jewish values were preached. Birnbaum’s father was a Conservative rabbi who emphasized the importance of the State of Israel and philanthropic giving (Birnbaum is a major donor to the Masorti Judaism, the Conservative Movement’s Israeli affiliate). While Birnbaum, a Harvard MBA, is committed to his life as an executive businessman, he also gets a chance to participate as a leader in a synagogue for a few days each year. He travels to Cincinnati to serve as the High Holiday cantor of Adath Israel Congregation each Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur along with his wife Bat Ella, an accomplished Israeli musician.

Daniel Birnbaum, High Holiday Cantor at Adath Israel Congregation Cincinnati
Daniel Birnbaum with the High Holiday choir at Adath Israel Congregation

As Tu Bishvat approaches, I would encourage people to learn more about SodaStream and its positive impact on the environment. Yes, it is a publicly traded company on the NASDAQ with major investors and a goal of becoming a billion dollar company, but it also has a vision based on the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam — improving our earth. SodaStream will never be loved by the BDS (boycot-divest-sanction) movement, pro-Palestinian groups, or the big soda corporations like Coke and Pepsi. However, it is making a great product, putting thousands of at-risk Palestinians into the work force, and trying to make an impact in reducing the world’s waste from bottles and cans.

I guarantee that after SodaStream’s Super Bowl commercial airs, Daniel Birnbaum will be the topic of conversation around the world. He’s a guy who should be admired, not denigrated. So on this Tu Bishvat I hope people drink a soda water L’chayim to Daniel Birnbaum, set the bubbles free, and pledge to help eliminate waste caused by all those unnecessary plastic bottles that are ruining our environment. Happy Tu Bishvat!

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

Social Media Sites Get Political About Israel

Cross-posted to the Jewish Techs blog at The Jewish Week

Spending a week in Israel earlier this month I kept my eyes open to the way Israelis use technology. Even on my first time in Israel over 18 years ago I noticed that Israelis thirsted for the latest tech gadgets. Being a country that struggled with telecommunications early on in its existence primed Israel for a telecom revolution. In the first decades of statehood, stories persisted about families who waited years just to get a telephone in their own home. So when mobile communications took off in the middle of the 1990s, Israelis were eager to adopt the new technology.

One thing I noticed during my recent visit was that the Apple iPhone is much less common in Israel than it is in North America. I also got the sense that Israelis prefer the GPS app Waze over other GPS services. That could be in part due to Apple’s decision not to link Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in its Maps application or World Clock on its new operating system. Back in September when Apple CEO Tim Cook admitted that Apple’s mobile Maps application was inaccurate and had many flaws (including the Jerusalem situation), he advised users of OS5 to download alternative navigation apps including Waze which was designed by Waze Ltd., an Israeli company.

Other questionable situations in social media have led many to question whether these are really honest mistakes or politically motivated actions. A recent Huffington Post article titled Did Flickr Delete Israel From Its Map? raises questions about the maps plugin of the photo social networking site Flickr. When the user zoomed in on Jerusalem there were no streets or landmarks as there would be for every other city in the world. The article triggered two responses from Yahoo which now owns Flickr. The first email from a company representative stated that Yahoo was aware of the issue and was working to quickly improve what is a third party map provider problem. There was no mention of why Israel was the only city in the world affected. The full email message from Yahoo read:

The geographical data that appears on Flickr and Yahoo! Maps comes from a third party map provider and we are working with them to understand and improve the gap in geographic coverage that has been reported. Yahoo! always wants to ensure the best possible product experience for our users, and this falls short of those expectations. We are continually working to source and roll out coverage where there is room to provide greater mapping details. In particular, we hope and expect that you will see improved maps coverage of Israel shortly.

The next day Flickr debuted a map that rendered Jerusalem as a normal city with its streets and landmarks returned to the way it was. There was no explanation for the error.

Of all the social networking sites, Facebook seemed to be the least problematic with Israel labeling. It is a very popular site in Israel. However, one Facebook user found that according to the site she no longer lived in Israel proper. Laura Ben-David, writing in the Times of Israel, explains how she suddenly was listed as living in Palestine rather than in Israel on her Facebook status updates:

Sorry, I didn’t share the news that I recently moved. In fact, I didn’t tell anyone. It was so sudden and so fast. We’re not just talking about moving from one street to another, or to a different neighborhood. Not even to another city or region. We’re talking about moving out of the country; out of Israel. Yes, I know it’s a shock to you. It was a shock to me as well. In fact, I found out about the move the same way most people find out things these days: on Facebook. I found out when friends saw a photo I’d taken from home and posted on Facebook, and they told me it was tagged with this new, previously unheard of location, ‘Neve Daniel, Palestine.’

Apparently Facebook no longer lists my town of ‘Neve Daniel’ as ‘Israel’, but rather as a city in ‘Palestine.’ Truthfully, this type of geographical blundering isn’t a particularly new development. In fact, I remember a time when I could ‘choose’ to tag my location either ‘Neve Daniel, Israel’ or ‘Neve Daniel, West Bank.’ Since 2010, Bing Maps have powered Facebook’s Places and locations. Frankly I don’t hold much stock in Bing Maps. A simple search in Bing could not even find Neve Daniel at all, in any country. I don’t know the back end of these programs, or how they work or fail to work. I can say that I successfully tagged the location on a photo, as I’ve done many times, as ‘Neve Daniel, Israel.’ Though what I saw, depending on where I was viewing it, was either only ‘Neve Daniel’ or ‘Neve Daniel, West Bank.’ What other people saw, and what they rushed to tell me and send me screen shots of, was ‘Neve Daniel, Palestine.’

While the situation between the Palestinians and the Israelis is indeed a complicated one, full of nuance, I think most would agree that these social networking sites are not the proper forums to play out the political situation. As far back as March 2008 Israeli settlers were fighting with Facebook to list their home city as part of Israel rather than Palestine. Ultimately, users in such settlements as Ma’aleh Adumim and Ariel were able to switch their hometowns back to Israel. However it seems like Facebook is once again taking it upon itself to determine which country users live in. Facebook groups have popped up urging Facebook to remain neutral in this political matter and not unilaterally list Israelis as living in Palestine.

As Ben-David explained, “We are living in a new reality where our sense of history is being molded – crafted, even – through social media. News outlets are barely fast enough to keep up with the speed by which social media spreads information. Hence it is social media that people today turn to for their news. And their facts. Today’s information from social media will be tomorrow’s history. In other words, if Facebook says it’s Palestine, it must be true. Even though it isn’t.”

(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

Israel’s Gaza Situation Becomes Cyber War

Social media changes the zeitgeist in ways we couldn’t have imagined. As we saw with the recent presidential election, opinions and attacks now travel at the speed of light. And so it should be no surprise that the ongoing Middle East conflict in Gaza between the Palestinians and Israelis has escalated into a Cyber war.

While the conflict may seem like history repeating itself, social media is actually changing the way the public sees the violence. As several news agencies have reported,Israel is now using social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and YouTube to its advantage in its war with Hamas in Gaza. In the past Israel has had to rely upon mainstream news agencies to report on the back-and-forth actions in Gaza, but now the Israeli military and government can take its message straight to the people using its social networks.

As the LA Times reported today:

While Israel launched its surprise attack Wednesday on Gaza, it declared it to the world on Twitter, arguing its case for the new campaign against Hamas in less than 140 characters.

Minute by minute, the Israel Defense Forces fed followers information and arguments on the strike. At their computers, Internet users could click through aerial photos, check updates on the offensive and watch a YouTube video of the strike killing the Hamas military chief.

At one point, the Israeli military traded Twitter barbs with Hamas. “We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead,” the @IDFSpokesperson account tweeted Wednesday.

The Hamas military wing tweeted back, “Our blessed hands will reach your leaders and soldiers wherever they are (You Opened Hell Gates on Yourselves).”

Israel Defense Forces Twitter Account

Social media isn’t new to the IDF, but the way it’s now using such sites as Twitter is new and will likely become the way nation-states will operate in military conflicts. It is clear that the chief spokesman of the IDF, Yoav Mordechai, believes that tweeting the operation in Gaza is a good weapon in its hasbara (public relations) struggle. Israel has always been challenged by negative PR in the mainstream media. Mordechai’s office even used Twitter to send a warning to its Hamas enemies, tweeting, “We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead.” The IDF’s Twitter feed has been continually updated with news, pictures and videos from the front lines using the Twitter “hashtag” #PillarOfDefense. Perhaps the Cyber war really became a reality when Hamas’ military wing responded with return fire on Twitter, tweeting back, “You Opened Hell Gates on Yourselves.”

In addition to the IDF’s new found use of Twitter, sites like YouTube (operated by Google) have had to navigate their way through the new murky waters of whether the postings by the IDF of their military operations are deemed “kosher” according to its own terms of service agreement. Originally Google yanked a video posted by the Israeli military Wednesday, which showed the “pinpoint strike” that killed Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari in his car. YouTube originally had a message on the removed video stating, “This clip has been removed because its content violated YouTube’s Terms of Service. Sorry about that.”

However, YouTube apparently changed its corporate mind and allowed the video to be shown. A company spokesperson explained, “With the massive volume of videos on our site, sometimes we make the wrong call. When it’s brought to our attention that a video has been removed mistakenly, we act quickly to reinstate it.” Most likely enough anti-Israel YouTube users had flagged the video triggering a review process until someone at YouTube could view the video in question and make the decision. By reinstating the video, YouTube opened up a whole new front in this war.

Israel Defense Forces Facebook Page

In taking the Middle East conflict to the Web, the opportunity for hacking has also been escalated. So it was no surprise early yesterday morning when a hacker group called “Anonymous” announced a mission to crash and deface websites belonging to the IDF, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and other Israeli websites belonging to security and financial corporations. Using Twitter, the hacking group urged its followers to bring down more than 40 websites belonging to the Israeli government and military.

In a statement, the hackers stated, “We will do everything in our power to hinder the evil forces of the IDF arrayed against you. We will use all our resources to make certain you stay connected to the Internet and remain able to transmit your experiences to the world.” Already the hacker group has claimed to have taken down Israeli’s “top security and surveillance website.” They also released a “care package” with tools for staying online if the Israeli government cuts off Internet access in Gaza. Another hacker group called Telecomix posted a message online with instructions on how to use dial-up Internet to stay connect if the Web is shut down. According to Forbes.com, most of the Anonymous’ target websites were still online.

Another new front of the Middle East war in Gaza has been the public discourse on social networking sites. As soon as the conflict escalated advocates on both sides of the conflict began using Facebook to show their support. Pro-Israel supporters began simply updating their Facebook status with the Hebrew words עם ישראל חי (Am Yisra’el Chai) meaning “The nation of Israel lives.” Other Facebook and Twitter users reposted news reports of the direct hit on the Gaza leader and reminded their followers that the news coverage of the conflict has not accurate covered the escalation as thousands of missiles had already been fired into Israel from Gaza. Yesterday, in a show of support many users on Facebook began posting photos of IDF soldiers from visits to the Jewish homeland.

On Twitter, #Gaza and #Jerusalem have been trending off and on over the past few days and many heated back-and-forth conversations have taken place on the site. The IDF’s Flickr site has also seen a huge uptick in traffic with many users reposting photos from that stream to their own Pinterest boards. Additionally, the IDF’s Facebook page has noticed a sharp increase in fans approaching a quarter million. The IDF page’s recent status was “Shabbat Shalom from the IDF. We won’t be able to rest until we bring quiet to Israel.”

The long-simmering conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians will be the first test of the social media zeitgeist. Newspapers and television news outlets are still relevant, but this will go down as the first war that was also played out in real time on the Web. In the social media era, anyone and everyone can become a reporter. And the millions of vehement opinions will likely only raise the heat of this escalating conflict.

Cross-posted to the Jewish Techs blog at the Jewish Week

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