Do It For Detroit

I was born 35 years ago today in Sinai Hospital on West Outer Drive in Downtown Detroit.

Detroit was born 310 years ago today.

Detroit hasn’t aged well in my lifetime. Sinai Hospital, which opened in 1953 to give Jewish doctors a place to practice, was the the central medical institution for the Jewish community. Even as the Jewish community migrated northwest into the Metro Detroit suburbs, Sinai remained the hospital of choice for Detroit’s Jews. Gradually this changed as it became increasingly more dangerous to venture Downtown and a handful of outstanding hospitals sprouted up in the suburbs with the Jewish doctors who received their training at Sinai. In 1999, Sinai merged with Grace Hospital and ceased being the Jewish hospital.

Jewish Detroiters had one less reason to head Downtown. The Jewish Federation building moved to the suburbs in the early 1990s. The synagogues had long since been sold to Black churches. The fancy restaurants that the Jewish community still flocked to had shuttered. With the exception of a Tigers baseball game or a Red Wings hockey game or the occasional concert or theater performance, there were little reasons for Jewish Detroiters living in the suburbs to head Downtown.

But that has changed. Detroit is now seeing a renaissance. The first attempt at a renaissance in Detroit was in 1977 when the Renaissance Building was erected as the great hope for the Motor City to turn around following the race riots of the late 1960s. That plan never materialized. However, the time has finally come for Detroit’s revival.

Here are a few of the great things happening in Detroit that are contributing to its revitalization:

Moishe House – On June 1, Detroit opened its first Moishe House in Downtown. The mission of Moishe House is to provide meaningful Jewish experiences for young adults around the world by supporting leaders in their 20s as they create vibrant home-based Jewish communities. Detroit’s new home for a handful of entrepreneurial Jewish young adults was funded by local Jewish philanthropists including A. Alfred Taubman, Max Fisher’s daughter Jane Sherman, the Seligman family, Bill and Madge Berman, and the Norman and Esther Allan Foundation. The young people living in the house, including Community Next’s Jordan Wolfe and Come Play Detroit’s Justin Jacobs, are pioneers. Like the young, idealistic pioneers who immigrated to Israel to resettle the land, these visionaries are taking the lead in Detroit.

Come Play Detroit – Founded by Justin Jacobs, Come Play Detroit began as a way for Metro Detroiters to play sports together in leagues. What began as a basketball league in the suburbs has morphed into a way to help bring excitement to the Downtown area. Softball and kickball leagues in Detroit, parties, and an attempt at setting a Guinness Book World Record for the largest dodgeball game are just some of Justin’s ideas that have encouraged Metro Detroit’s young adult Jewish population to venture Downtown.

Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue – Detroit’s only surviving synagogue is a Conservative congregation on Griswold Street in the center of the city that until recently functioned as the only minyan where Jewish businessmen could go for afternoon services if they had to say Kaddish (the mourner’s prayer). Its story of rebirth is an interesting one. Young, passionate Jews have saved the building from falling into disrepair and becoming a slum building. Its new mission is to rediscover Jewish life in Detroit. The synagogue no longer functions as a traditional Conservative synagogue, but more of a Jewish center of social justice programming and cultural activities offering Shabbat services and luncheons, film nights, classes, and dance parties.

LiveWorkDetroit – Detroit’s business leaders are the city’s biggest cheerleaders for a renaissance. The Michigan Economic Development Corporation includes many Jewish businessmen who are at the forefront of creating new jobs for young people in an effort to get them to stay in Detroit. A Crain’s Detroit Business article included several Jewish leaders in its list of the most powerful people in Detroit: Dan Gilbert of Quicken Loans, Michigan Republican Party Chairman Bobby Schostak, and Jewish Federation President Michael Horowitz. Jewish businessmen like Gilbert, Schostak, Stanley Frankel and Gary Torgow are working behind-the-scenes to retain Jewish talent and help bring back the young Jews who fled Detroit. With the full support of Detroit’s Mayor Dave Bing, Dan Gilbert has teamed up with Josh Linkner, Magic Johnson and Brian Hermelin to invest in new companies that will help revitalize Detroit.

My birthday wish today is that the City of Detroit, which shares its birthday with me, will become the city that we dream it can be. I hope the Motor City returns to a vibrant urban center that we can be proud of. It is exciting that so many young Jewish Detroiters are finally saying “Do It For Detroit.”

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

Can You Twitter Judaism?

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

Is Twitter a good medium for Judaism? Two articles were recently posted on the Web that took opposing viewpoints on this question.

Donniel Hartman, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute and the director of the Engaging Israel Project, penned a critique titled “Judaism is not a Twitter-able Religion” in which he explained that the ideas of Judaism cannot be tweeted using the social networking site Twitter. Hartman argues that “in the past, we could always count on a regular stream of anti-Semitic events to maintain Jewish affiliation and identity. Today, ‘they’ aren’t hating us enough, or at least consistently enough, to generate on their own a Jewish identity and sense of belonging.”

Today, he writes, we are looking for the “something” and “anything” to put out there as the message of Judaism. This method has the potential to create entry and access points, which will eventually lead to the beginning of new Jewish journeys, but this is not enough. While Hartman explains that he applauds these efforts, they are also of a great concern to him.
Hartman goes on to state his case:

The Jewish people have, since our inception, been the carriers of ideas. We changed history, not as a result of our economic or military power, nor by the enormity of our numbers. It was by the depth and significance of what we stood for – a way of life permeated by important ideas and values held together and conveyed through powerful and meaningful experiences – which placed Jews and Judaism as a transformational force in human culture.

This content is not Twitter-able. The journey of a meaningful Jewish life needs a wide bandwidth. It requires knowledge, time, and commitment. If we want Judaism to have a great future, and not merely a great past, we need to set our sights higher and deeper.

How do we solve the Jewish Catch-22? Part of it is not solvable, and we have to recognize that Jewish life was not in the past, and will not be in the future only a numbers game. However, there need not be a zero-sum game between short-term programs aimed at teaching “something,” and those that give content and meaning to a more extensive Jewish journey. The problem we face is conceptual. Too many of us, in particular those in leadership positions, have stopped thinking about the requirements of a deep and meaningful journey, relegating it to the domain of a luxury item to be nurtured when the crisis of Jewish continuity is resolved. While catering to the unaffiliated and communicating a message which they are capable of hearing, we need also to work to increase their capability. We need to continuously increase our demands, so that Jews will increase their demands from themselves and what they demand from their tradition. We need to ensure that there is no corner of Jewish life in which an individual, regardless of their denomination, is not able to engage a Judaism of depth and experience its vitality. In short, if we want Jews to embark on a meaningful Jewish journey, we need to ensure that such a journey is possible.[…]

We yearned for an era in which Jews would be accepted as equals; we now need to learn not to fear it. We can compete in an open marketplace of ideas. We can survive in an era of choice and develop and provide a tradition which can inspire that choice. It is dependent now on the choices we make as a community and the level of aspirations to which we strive.

An opposing viewpoint was blogged by Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder in a post for Hebrew Union College’s Tze U’lemad blog for continuing alumni education. She writes that “18 months ago, I did not see any of these wonderful ways to use Twitter to innovate spiritual connection, meaning making and engagement. Given the vast network that is Twitter, I have no doubt missed many other great innovations. And given that Twitter is still in its infancy, I feel certain much more will unfold.” She begins her revelation about Twitter’s benefits to Judaism:

At first glance it can easy to dismiss Twitter. Small bites of conversations not necessarily joined in linear progression have the potential to be devoid of meaning. But playing with the medium, it is clear, that the format also lends itself to innovation. Last week I described how Twitter is enhancing the traditional work of Jewish professionals, but Twitter is more than just a way to do the expected in a different format, it is an opportunity to do the unexpected.

Abusch-Magder cites several examples of how Twitter has been successfully used in various Jewish educational initiatives. Among others, Abusch-Magder mentions Tweeting during high holiday services, retelling the exodus narrative on Twitter, and the publicizing the Jewish Women’s Archive through Twitter. She also refers the reader to the highly popular Unitarian-Universalist minister on Twitter Rev. Naomi King who uses Twitter for what she’s termed “Digital Faith Formation” using the application TweetChat. TweetChat helps put your blinders on to the Twitter-sphere while you monitor and chat about one topic.

Both Rabbis Hartman and Abusch-Magder make valid points regarding Judaism in the 21st century. Hartman is correct that we shouldn’t allow ourselves to water down Judaism into soundbites (or tweets). Our millenia-old Tradition should not be squeezed into 140-character messages. However, there are important opportunities to utilize Twitter (and other social networking sites) for the promotion of Judaism in positive ways. This medium shouldn’t be quickly rejected as useless when it comes to bolstering Judaism and having our religion compete in an open marketplace of ideas.

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

Natalie Portman Gives Birth to a Baby Boy

Since I launched this blog in March 2003, no post has attracted as much attention as the one I titled simply: “Is Benjamin Millepied Jewish?” That post has received dozens more comments than this blog normally receives. And that simple question: “Is Benjamin Millepied Jewish?” has driven traffic to this blog in record numbers.

So, now that Natalie Portman has given birth to a baby boy I’m sure there will be new questions that arise in the public’s mind. As Benjamin Millepied and Natalie Portman welcome their son into this world, will they choose to have a brit milah (bris, ritual circumcision) for their baby son? What will his name be? Will Natalie Portman choose a Hebrew name for her son? Since she is of Israeli descent, will her son’s name be a common Israeli name?

When Natalie Portman releases the name of her baby, I’m sure people will still want more information. Since Ashkenazi Jewish custom dictates that babies are named after deceased relatives, the public will want to know who Natalie Portman’s son is named for. Also, there is no question that this baby was born Jewish because Natalie Portman is Jewish, so there will likely be an international discussion about whether Portman and Millepied will have a traditional bris ceremony on this new baby’s eighth day of life. With the debate over a ban on ritual circumcision currently taking place in San Francisco, I’m certain this celebrity birth will add fuel to that fire.

Finally, Natalie Portman has stated publicly that she plans to raise her child Jewish. Another high profile Jewish celebrity who is intermarried to a non-Jew but raising her child Jewish will add to the discussion about interfaith families. Benjamin Millepied could choose to convert to Judaism in the future, but if he doesn’t he will be in good company with other non-Jewish parents helping to raise Jewish children. In fact, organizations like the Jewish Outreach Institute and InterfaithFamily.com exist to help interfaith families who are giving their children a Jewish upbringing.

Mazel Tov to Natalie Portman and Benjamin Millepied on the birth of their son. For years we’ve watched Natalie Portman as she’s starred in movies and received award after award. Now, she’ll have a chance to shine as a Jewish mother. I’m betting that thirteen years from now, there will be a headline somewhere that reads “Natalie Portman’s son becomes a Bar Mitzvah.”

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

On Jewish Identity

I was one of three Jewish educators asked to respond to a statement about Jewish identity for this month’s issue of Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility. The statement was co-written by Patrick Aleph and Michael Sabani, the co-founders of Punk Torah. After I responded to their statement in writing, Patrick and Michael interviewed me via Skype. Their statement, my response and the video interview are below:

“If I try to be like him, who will be like me?” (Yiddish Proverb)

No study has ever been done to discover the root cause of why people stop identifying with Judaism. If we worry less about Judaism as a culture and more about monotheism, we might find that — suddenly — people have something more to believe in. Jewish identity is more than matzah ball soup and Young Professionals mixers.

God, Israel (the people), and the Torah are essential for Jewish identity. Without God, we sit on a stool with only two legs. Theists need to summon up the courage to put God first in Jewish life in spite of the urge to keep our heads down so we don’t look crazy.

We often place a lot of importance on not standing out, especially in a “tribal” sense. It gives us a sense of being a part of something larger than ourselves. The flip side is that if we all try to be like someone else, we lose who we really are.

Judaism is a path (halakhah) that allows us to walk together, even if we walk at our own pace. When we try to be like another, we are giving up our God-given individuality.

—Patrick Aleph and Michael Sabani

My response: 
Jewish identity is a tricky subject. We have no consensus on how to define it, what it should feel like, or to what extent it should be particularistic. I find that Judaism has much wisdom to offer, both to adherents of the faith and to the rest of the world. I’m often, therefore, baffled by our numbers — that we account for such a small fraction of the population.

Should we worry more about monotheism, as Michael Sabani and Patrick Aleph suggest? Should we worry less about the cultural components of our peoplehood? These are decisions that each individual “member of the tribe” must make. Some Jews will be enthralled with bagels and lox on Sunday mornings, federation meetings, Seinfeld reruns, and B’nai Brith softball. Other Jews will recharge their spiritual batteries in traditional synagogue life. Some will look to Jewish summer camp as their source of Jewishness, and for other people it will be the connection to the State of Israel. We are a club, but we’re not sure who is included and who decides our boundaries. It is good for us to stand out as tribally different, but we should also count our blessings that we are included in the larger fabric as well.

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