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When Technology & Shabbat Collide, Give the Benefit of the Doubt

This past Sunday, the president of New York University issued a mass e-mail apology to students and staff. The day after Yom Kippur might sound like a sensible day for issuing apologies, but the question is whether John Sexton actually needed to make a Mea Culpa.

You see, this official apology to the entire university community was for sending an earlier mass e-mail (the university president’s academic year report) on Friday evening when Jewish students were already observing Yom Kippur at Kol Nidrei services. Apparently, the report was supposed to be sent during the day on Friday (before the advent of the holiday), but it was delayed due to technical problems.

While it’s nice that the university president issued this apology before any complaints were even made, I’m not sure how an e-mail coming into one’s inbox on the Day of Atonement is offensive. Personally, I abstain from using my computer or phone (and thus no e-mail) on Shabbat and Jewish holidays, but I’m not offended if messages reach my account during these times.

I don’t think Jewish institutions should send official e-mail messages on Shabbat and holidays, but of course it depends on the type of Jewish organization. A reform temple sending a reminder via e-mail to its membership on Saturday afternoon about a program that evening might not be considered unseemly, but a JCC or Jewish federation releasing a broadcast e-mail message in the middle of Shabbat would be tacky, raising eyebrows and drawing complaints. NYU, a secular institution, shouldn’t worry about sending e-mail messages to the student body on Jewish holidays. Jewish students at NYU were legitimately angered that the second day of classes were held on Rosh Hashanah, but the president’s e-mail message reaching the inbox once Yom Kippur began is not an egregious act. Sexton’s apology is just an example of political correctness gone too far.

There are certainly times when technology and Shabbat or Jewish holidays collide. In some cases, a tactful conversation is necessary. For instance, leaders in my synagogue might send each other casual e-mail messages on Shabbat and Jewish holidays regarding congregational matters. But it is only when a leader sends an e-mail to the entire congregation that it is problematic. True, no one is being forced to turn on their computer and log-in to their e-mail account to read it on Shabbat or a holiday, but it gives the impression that official synagogue business is being conducted on these days and that’s an impression I don’t want to give.
There are other times when technology seems to collide with Shabbat, but without that intention and the benefit of the doubt should be granted. Here are two examples to demonstrate my point:

1) For several years my Facebook account was set up to automatically upload this blog’s RSS feed onto my Facebook page. This process often took a few hours after I published a blog post. So, on one occasion I posted to my blog at around 4:00 p.m. on a Friday afternoon. The blog post wasn’t fed onto my Facebook account until later that evening, after Shabbat began. The following Monday, I received a finger-wagging message through Facebook from a member of my local Jewish community. She commended me on my interesting blog, but questioned how I, as a rabbi and role-model in the community, could publish a blog post on Shabbat.

Even after explaining to her that the actual post was published well before the onset of Shabbat, but that it didn’t posted to my Facebook profile until several hours later, she chastised me for not taking that into account when I originally posted to my blog. I was immediately reminded that certain activities are prohibited even before Shabbat commences lest others think that you have transgressed the laws of Shabbat (i.e, one may not put wheat into the watermill unless there is enough time for it to be ground before the onset of Shabbat).

2) I am an avid user of Constant Contact, the Web based e-mail newsletter marketing application, and I used to send a weekly newsletter to my subscribers on Friday afternoon. On one particular Friday, the site experienced a maintenance problem and it didn’t send the newsletter until Saturday morning. I discovered that the newsletter wasn’t disseminated until Saturday morning when I checked my e-mail following Shabbat. Of all the subscribers, I received only one irate message from an individual who complained that I sent the newsletter during Shabbat. The irony is that he sent his chastising message to me on Shabbat afternoon. I replied with the explanation that Constant Contact experienced maintenance problems, he he responded, “I figured it was something like that. Sorry. And I guess I shouldn’t have responded on Shabbat anyway!”

So, sometimes it’s important to give people the benefit of the doubt when technology and Shabbat collide. Before jumping to conclusions, it’s possible that the message sent to your discussion group on Shabbat was actually sent by someone in Israel where Shabbat had already ended in that timezone. Maybe that message from the Jewish federation’s CEO to the entire community was scheduled before the holiday, but it got delayed in Cyberspace.

And if you’re a college student at NYU who returned home after breaking the fast Saturday night to find that an e-mail message from your university president had been waiting for you in your inbox since Friday night… let it go. Your e-mail account’s Sabbath observance hasn’t been compromised.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
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Israel, We Have a Problem

In the summer of 1998 I was a madrich (Hebrew for counselor) on the Michigan Teen Mission to Israel. This was the second teen Israel trip coordinated by the Metropolitan Detroit’s Jewish Federation. I helped lead a bus of Conservative Jewish teens from Congregation Shaarey Zedek and we traveled through Israel with a bus of teens from Adat Shalom Synagogue — another Detroit’s Conservative congregation.

One teen on the Adat Shalom bus was Hillary Rubin. I had been friends with her older sister Kim in high school and quickly recognized Hillary as Kim’s sister. I remember talking with Hillary at a Bedouin village in the Negev and immediately realizing that she was infatuated with Israel more than the other Jewish teens on the “mission.” So, it was no surprise when I learned a couple years ago via Facebook that Hillary made aliyah (immigration to Israel).

This morning I awoke to Hillary’s picture in a front page article on — the Israeli newspaper’s online edition. Turns out she has gotten a first-hand experience of what many Israelis go through when they want to get married in an official Jewish ceremony in the Jewish state.

I know of many Israelis who board planes to nearby Cyprus to tie the knot so they don’t have to deal with the Israeli chief rabbinates (there are two: one Ashkenazi and one Sephardi). The Haaretz article explains that Hillary is, ironic enough, the great-niece of a prominent Zionist leader with a street in Israel named for him. Today, she and her husband, Craig Glaser, are finding it impossible to register for a Jewish wedding in the JEWISH state.

Letters from four Conservative rabbis and a Chabad rabbi are not sufficient to prove Hillary’s Jewishness. The daughter of divorced parents whose divorce was officiated by Conservative rabbis has probably complicated the situation. Her mother remarrying a Catholic man won’t help matters. But the ultimate insult is the Herzliya rabbinate’s demand that she provide ketubahs (wedding contracts) from her grandparents whose ketubahs were curiously not returned to them after they fled the Nazis during the Holocaust. Other relatives of her’s were gassed at Auschwitz so the death certificates never existed.

I can’t imagine this is what Theodor Herzl had in mind when he envisioned a Jewish nation. The great niece of Nahum Sokolow who lives in Herzliya (named for Herzl) cannot get married in Israel. This is a travesty. It seems that there is no longer one Judaism. The Judaism of the chief rabbinate(s) in Israel is just not my religion. They have corrupted it out of recognition.

So, in a week when all eyes in the Jewish community are on the high profile intermarriage of Hillary Clinton’s daughter Chelsea who is marrying the Jewish Mark Mezvinsky, I would recommend that Jews throughout the world turn their attention to this Hillary. She might not have the Secretary of State for a mom or a past U.S. president for a dad, but she’s become an example of everything wrong with the way Israel is handling religious matters. Something’s got to change.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
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Woman Arrested for Illegal Use of Torah

I work as the rabbi at a Jewish summer camp. We have eighty campers from Israel join us each summer. Many of these young campers, like most Israelis, are not familiar with liberal, alternative forms of religious expression in Judaism. In Israel, Judaism is black and white. You either do it or you don’t – secular or religious. Even the Israeli youth at camp who have heard of the Conservative and Reform movements still don’t really understand what it means to be a Conservative or Reform Jew.

This morning, a 12-year-old Israeli boy approached me and asked, “You’re not an Orthodox rabbi, right?” No, I responded wearing my cargo shorts, t-shirt, and shortly cropped hair with a knitted kippah. I told him that I’m a Conservative rabbi. He said that’s what he figured but he wasn’t sure. He then said something that caught me off guard. In Hebrew he asked, “That sefer Torah (Torah scroll) that you read from on Shabbat morning at services here at camp isn’t kosher, is it?”

I explained that the Torah is most certainly kosher, but I understood immediately where his doubt came from. I told him that our camp actually owns two kosher Torah scrolls and that this particular one we’ve been using this summer was on loan from a local synagogue. Based on the Judaism that he sees in his native Israel, he found it difficult to believe that a non-Orthodox rabbi could possess a valid Torah scroll.

In Israel today, the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) establishment is calling the shots when it comes to religious law. Israelis like to boast that their country is the only true democracy in the Middle East, but when it comes to matters of religion, Israel is beginning to look more like one of those backward, primitive religious states in the Islamic world at which we roll our eyes.

Each month, on Rosh Chodesh (the beginning of the Jewish month), the Women of the Wall gather in Jerusalem for a women-only prayer service. These prayer meetings have been turned into a media circus ever since Nofrat Frankel was arrested for wearing a tallit (prayer shawl) a few months ago. Yesterday, Women of the Wall leader Rabbi Anat Hoffman was arrested for carrying a Torah scroll from the Western Wall women’s section to the Southern Wall area where the Chief Rabbinate and the police both agreed that women could read from the Torah.

My colleague, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, was part of this group and witnessed Anat’s arrest. She detailed the incident in a jewschool post. She writes:

We finished Hallel and began to proceed, according to the terms of the Israeli High Court (Bag”tz) decision, to Robinson’s Arch to read Torah, with the intent to preserve the continuity of the service by escorting the Torah in song. Now, it should be noted here that WoW has had a hard time lately getting the Sefer Torah into the Kotel area, even though Bag”tz permitted it in its ruling. I won’t reveal how they got it in this time around, but it took some maneuvering.

It is perfectly kosher, according to the Bag”tz ruling, to take the Sefer Torah out of its bag, as Anat did this morning, by the Kotel, to carry it to Robinson’s Arch. It is not permitted to read from the Torah in the women’s section, and we did not. We were singing and escorting the Torah, and things got more and more tense, with police trying to physically push Anat out of the women’s section and she (and those of us holding on to her) was trying to walk out, but at a more dignified pace. Eventually there was a skirmish involving the police trying to physically take the Torah out of her hands (we were now out of the women’s section and on our way over to Robinson’s Arch) and somewhere in all of that, they arrested her, and she was taken into custody (as was the Torah).

Many Conservative and Reform rabbis have written articles recently expressing the notion that the real enemy in Israel is us. Often the greatest threat is from within.

Just today, a law called the Rotem Bill is moving closer to final passage in the Knesset (Israel’s parliament). This law began as a proposal by the Yisrael Beitenu party to streamline conversion for Russian immigrants, but it has been twisted into an attack on non-Orthodox Jews. This bill will vest all authority for conversion in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate and guarantee that only a particular Orthodox approach to defining Judaism will become the guideline for determining who is recognized as a convert to Judaism. The Rotem Bill would overturn earlier protections for non-Orthodox converts and threaten the legitimacy of Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and other converts to Judaism who wish to become citizens or be otherwise recognized by the state as Jewish.

I’m proud of my Jewish heritage and I feel blessed to be a rabbi. However, the notion that a woman can be arrested in Jerusalem, the capital of the Jewish homeland, for holding a Torah scroll is infuriating. I believe that it is healthy to have differing viewpoints and expressions of Judaism, but the ultra-Orthodox monopoly on religion in Israel must cease. The video footage (below) showing the police brutality toward the Women of the Wall is disgusting.

In a week on the ninth of Av, Jewish people around the world will fast for a full day in commemoration of the destruction of the temples that once stood in Jerusalem. Tradition teaches that the Temple fell in the year 70 CE on account of sinat chinam, the baseless hatred among Jews. The complete arrogance and disrespect shown by some Jewish people toward others in Israel demonstrates that 2,000 years later the lesson has yet to be learned.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
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Hebrew National Hot Dogs: Questioning Higher Authority

A 2004 article in the Jewish Daily Forward proclaimed that “Hebrew National became the unchallenged king of the kosher meat industry by marketing its product to non-Jews with the help of several catchy advertising slogans, including the famous, ‘We answer to a higher authority.’ But its success masked a bizarre twist: Most kosher consumers won’t eat the company‘s products.”

The article went on to explain that following the death of Hebrew National’s in-house Rabbi Tibor Stern and the decision to get kosher supervision from the Orthodox Triangle K, under the auspices of Aryeh Ralbag, the company is regaining the confidence of the Orthodox community.

In my final year as a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, I sat in on a discussion of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which ruled that it would approve Hebrew National meat products. The Forward article stated that “Members of the committee say the decision will have a large impact on religiously observant Conservative Jews, especially those living in smaller communities with limited access to kosher food. Law Committee members said that the status of Hebrew National is one of the most common questions they field regarding kashrut. Due to the perceived significance of the question, the committee veered from its recent policy of not issuing statements on the acceptability of various kosher certification agencies for fear of law suits.”

Sue Fishkoff, in a New York Times op-ed (Red, White and Kosher) yesterday, took on the issue of Hebrew National’s kosher acceptance. Of course, Fishkoff’s timing was perfect since it is 4th of July weekend when millions of families will be grilling hot dogs.

What I liked most about her op-ed was her explanation of why Kosher is the fastest-growing segment of the domestic food industry. She writes:

Today, a majority of Americans believe that kosher food is safer, healthier, better in general than non-kosher food. And they’re willing to pay more for it. Kosher is the fastest-growing segment of the domestic food industry, with bigger sales than organic. One-third to one-half of the food in American supermarkets is kosher-certified, representing more than $200 billion of the country’s estimated $500 billion in annual food sales, up from $32 billion in 1993.

Given that Jews make up less than 2 percent of the population, and most of them don’t keep kosher, it’s clear that the people buying this food are mostly non-Jews. While some consumers probably aren’t aware that their pasta or cookies are kosher, many are folks who believe that “higher authority” promise.

I couldn’t agree more. This month, my kosher certification company, Kosher Michigan, adds several new businesses that will be certified kosher under my supervision. In addition to another bagel bakery (New York Bagel), Kosher Michigan will also certify Schakolad Chocolate Factory — a handmade European style chocolate franchise in Downtown Birmingham started by Israeli chocolatier Baruch Schaked. Kosher Michigan now certifies four production lines at Dunn Paper, a parafin wax paper manufacturer. Last month, we certified the bakery, pre-ordered fruit trays, and candy/dried fruit/nut tray department at a popular Metro Detroit supermarket, Johnny Pomodoro’s Fresh Market.

My goal is to bring more kosher options to the marketplace. Sue Fishkoff articulates the delight that Jewish Americans feel each time another product becomes certified kosher. “It’s not just hot dogs. Every time a major American food product goes kosher, observant Jews are delighted. Coca-Cola in 1935. Oreos in 1997. Tootsie Rolls last year and two Gatorade drinks earlier this year. Häagen-Dazs ice cream, Smucker’s grape jam, Tropicana orange juice — every new item brought into the kosher pantry is a sign of fitting in the American mainstream while being observant.”

Just last week I was introduced to a Florida man who had never met a rabbi before. He confessed that he knew absolutely nothing about Judaism, but that only a few months prior he had eaten a “kosher dog” for the first time. Now that he’d had a “kosher dog,” he told me, he would never eat just a regular hot dog again..

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
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Mark Zuckerberg, Emily Gould & Rabbeinu Gershom

Cross-posted at Jewish Techs

What do Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg, blogger Emily Gould, and the 10th-11th century scholar Rabbeinu Gershom have in common?

They all articulated their views about privacy.

Zuckerberg was criticized last month for Facebook’s new privacy settings. Over 500 million worldwide users of Facebook had more of their information made public because Zuckerberg believes that “if people share more, the world will become more open and connected. And a world that’s more open and connected is a better world.”

Zuckerberg, now 26-years-old, created Facebook in his Harvard dorm room as a way to connect co-eds in the Ivy League. Today, it’s used by all ages across the globe to divulge more personal information than anyone had originally planned.

Zuckerberg’s first privacy controversy came on November 6, 2007 when he announced a new social advertising system at an event in LA called Facebook Beacon. The application enabled users to share information with their Facebook “friends” based on their browsing activities on other sites. Beacon came under attack from both privacy groups and individuals with Zuckerberg ultimately taking responsibility and offering an easier way for users to opt out of the service.

Emily Gould, author of “And the Heart Says Whatever,” has also been affected by the sharing of private information on the Web. She writes in the current issue of Newsweek: “I should have known that the blog, an anonymous diary of my personal life, was a bad idea. As a reporter for the gossip site Gawker, I spent my days deconstructing similar attempts at concealment. But I lulled myself into a false sense of security.

Disclosing her personal information and experiences with everything from cooking to an office romance gone bad, robbed Gould of her private life. Everything quickly became public and spread around Cyberspace. Her former boyfriend revealed secrets of their relationship in a tell-all article in the New York Post Sunday magazine.

Gould, who “spent the next few days wishing the Web away,” is the classic example of someone who’s life was changed by over-sharing. In the Information Age, TMI doesn’t just mean sharing too much information; it means that your too much information has gone viral on the Web.

And that brings us to Rabbeinu Gershom. Centuries before the invention of e-mail and status updates, this sage understood a thing or two about privacy. At the beginning of the eleventh century, the leading German rabbi was Gershom, known by German Jewry as Rabbenu ((our Rabbi) Gershom. According to the tradition, he wrote four special ordinances (takkanot) which differed with Jewish law in Babylonia.

While his most famous decree concerned the outlaw of polygamy, Rabbeinu Gershom also made it a major sin to open and read someone else’s mail. This legal ruling ensured the privacy and safety of mercantile transactions between Jewish communities.

This sort of makes us wonder what Rabbeinu Gershom would make of the voluntary sharing of personal material on the Web today. Perhaps, someone should share Rabbeinu Gershom’s teaching with Mark Zuckerberg so his company locks down users’ personal information that should be kept private.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
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BP Oil Spill Hits Day 50

If BP was trying to make a Jewish connection to the oil spill off the Louisiana coast, they got it all wrong.

Yesterday marked the 49th day of the BP oil spill. Perhaps BP was going for the Hanukkah story connection, which is “The Oil lasted for 8 days.” Instead, BP got confused with the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, which is 49 days of counting the harvest and the 50th day (Shavuot) is the anniversary of the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai.

Hopefully this environmental mess will be remedied soon as the effects on wildlife are certainly a violation of the Jewish principle of “tzar ba’alei chayim” — the responsibility to treat animals ethically.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
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Negotiating With a Bar Mitzvah Boy

Like many rabbis, when I encounter an article about “Jewish life” in the mainstream press, I ask myself the age-old question: Is this good or bad for the Jews?

And that is precisely what I did yesterday when I read about the bar mitzvah party that is to take place at Yankee Stadium this June 5th and is now holding up the possibility of the stadium’s first boxing event that same night.

I’ve written about over-the-top bar mitzvah parties on this blog in the past, including the the $10 million Bat Mitzvahpalooza in 2005 featuring 50-Cent and Aerosmith. Now, Jonathan Ballan, the lead bond lawyer for the financing of Yankee Stadium, has reserved the stadium for his son’s bar mitzvah this June. The NY Times reports that “In addition to providing lounges, the Yankees promised to give the Ballan party access to the stadium’s giant scoreboard in center field for 30 minutes.”

Now, the Yankees are negotiating with the bar mitzvah family and the boxing promoter so everyone will be happy. They’ve promised seats at the boxing event to all the bar mitzvah guests, a private meeting for the bar mitzvah boy with the boxing champ, and autographed baseballs for all the bar mitzvah boy’s friends.

But here’s the best part of the story: The boxing champ is none other than Yuri Foreman, an Orthodox Jewish fighter who is studying on the side to become a rabbi. In an ironic twist, there was no question of hosting a lavish bar mitzvah party at Yankee Stadium in the middle of the Sabbath day where all sorts of activities that are antithetical to Sabbath observance will be taking place. However, the boxing match was scheduled for after sundown to accommodate Yuri Foreman’s many Sabbath-observant fans in the New York area who couldn’t get to Yankee Stadium during the Jewish Sabbath out of respect for Jewish law and tradition.

So, in essence what we have here is a Sabbath-observant championship boxing match that will be trumped by the Main Event, a mega-party for a 13-year-old Jewish kid that is throwing a sharp uppercut to the concept of Jewish values.

So, the headline could very well be: “Jewish Boxing Champion Knocked Out By Bar Mitzvah Kid.”  And that just can’t be good for the Jews.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
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Ethics of Justice

Listening to the Torah reading on Shemini Atzeret this past Shabbat morning, my attention was focused on the hungry. One might think that it would have been on Yom Kippur that my attention was on the hungry as I spent the day fasting. However, I couldn’t help but think of those human beings without enough sustenance during the Sukkot festival and into the holiday of Shemini Atzeret.

On Sukkot, we move outdoors and dwell in temporary shelters. In the warm climate of Israel this is a nice custom — spending seven days outdoors eating meals in the warm sukkah. However, with the heavy rainfall that lasted the entirety of the Sukkot festival here in Detroit, how could one sit in the cold, wet sukkah and not think of those who must brave the elements each night on the street.

Many friends told me how their sukkah could not withstand the windy weather and it toppled over. It was easy to make the connection for them that during those rainfalls and wind storms, there were human beings sleeping on the streets of Downtown Detroit in empty refridgerator boxes. When one’s sukkah collapses from the inclement weather, one quickly returns into the safety of their sturdy house. This is certainly not an option for the men and women on the street.

We often say that the sukkah stands to remind us to be thankful for the safety and security of our homes — our shelter. We should be grateful that after the eight-day holiday we are free to return to our permanent dwelling place. However, the truth is that the sukkah is not analogous to the temporary shelter of a homeless person. We spend the holiday feasting with family and friends inside our beautifully decorated sukkah, and most of us then return to our comfortable houses to sleep safely through the night. A local rabbi in Detroit who owns a heating and cooling business even told me that he installed a heating unit complete with duct work in someone’s sukkah this year. That is certainly not an option for a homeless person, living in poverty, trying to brave the cold on the streets.

But it wasn’t just the sukkah that turned my attention to the hungry and the homeless during the Sukkot festival. Days before Sukkot, I attended author Mitch Albom’s event at the Fox Theatre in which he talked about his experience at homeless shelters in Detroit. Albom began flexing his philanthropic muscle to benefit the homeless a few years ago as Detroit was gearing up to host Superbowl XL.

To get a sense of what the homeless and hungry must endure, Albom found himself at a downtown shelter, a Christian rescue mission where he would spend the night. He waited on line for a blanket and soap. He was given a bed. At one point, in line for food, a man turned and asked if he was Mitch Albom. Yes, Albom said. The man nodded slowly. “So… What happened to you?” It could be any of us in that situation.

Albom’s book Have a Little Faith forces the reader to consider the lives of those who live on the streets and spend their nights in deteriorating church shelters in the dangerous neighborhoods of downtown. It certainly made me appreciate my house. I think my sukkah was in better condition than some of the homeless shelters I read about in Albom’s book.

* * *

My attention was also sharply focused on the less fortunate — the hungry and the homeless — during the Sukkot festival for another reason. The local Detroit kosher food pantry, Yad Ezra, hosted their annual dinner during the intermediate days of Sukkot. Yad Ezra must be praised for the holy work they do: They provide free kosher food, toiletries, and household cleaning items to low-income Jewish families in Southeast Michigan.

It would be considered blasphemy to criticize this important communal organization. And yet, I was left extremely surprised that during Sukkot they held their annual dinner at a local synagogue. The “strolling dinner,” which likely cost the organization over $20,000, fed their donors gourmet food while their beneficiaries were standing in line for dinner at shelters in the rain. Their mission is to feed the hungry in our community, and yet on that night it was the well-to-do donors that sustain the organization who were fed. It seems that their priorities were not in tune with their core mission.

I’ve been to many non-profit fundraising events that serve expensive, delicious meals. Of course, one could argue, it’s better not to wine and dine, and just allow all the donations to go to the organization’s mission and overhead. However, these events are part of the culture in the fundraising world. I take exception, however, with the Yad Ezra annual dinner because it is their stated mission to feed the hungry through their kosher food bank. To have an excess of food at this event and to spend the evening talking about feeding the hungry seems paradoxical to me.

I imagine a more appropriate event for this agency in which they encourage their donors to stay home, have a nice dinner in their sukkah with their family and then come to the event to help honor one of their most dedicated donors. They would be asked to bring a bag of non-perishables (even though many did just that before Yom Kippur). The agency leaders could then tell the donors how much money was saved by not serving a full meal or providing a strolling, all-you-can-eat buffet. The donors would be relieved and would not feel guilty eating excessively while talking about the needs of the hungry in the community.

* * *

Finally, my attention was directed at those less fortunate during the Torah reading on Shemini Atzeret. Most of Deuteronomy chapter 15 is concerned with ensuring that there not emerge in the Israelite nation a permanent underclass (persons unable to lift themselves out of poverty). The Torah reading discusses the remission of debts every seventh year and the laws of lending to the poor. Five verses (15:7-11) in the chapter outline Jewish poverty laws requiring us to feed, clothe, and house poor non-Jews as well as Jews. The next verses promote a fair severance pay for workers.

This Torah reading gets to the heart of Jewish ethics and the ideal way in which we must treat our fellow human beings (be they Jewish or gentile, workers or the unemployed). We have a clear role to take care of those less fortunate — the hungry and the homeless.

As I listened to these verses being chanted, I thought about Nathaniel Popper’s harsh critique in the Forward of the Hekhsher Tzedek commission’s Magen Tzedek. He argues that Conservative Jewish leaders who support the “living wage” have done little to lead by way of example and emulate this ethic in their own synagogues. He quotes my colleague Rabbi Jill Jacobs, who wrote a teshuvah (religious ruling) promoting a living wage and edited a book about pursuing social justice to benefit the needy. She said, “There’s somewhat of a reluctance to look inward and think and talk about our own employment practices.”

Fact is, Popper is correct. It is disingenuous for rabbis to call for higher wages and better working conditions at kosher food companies (e.g. Rubashkins) before ensuring that their synagogue’s own janitors and nursery school teachers are compensated fairly. It is easy to levy standards on other establishments, but much more difficult to attain those standards at home first.

What is most important is to work toward a society in which there is no permanent underclass. Not everything will be equal — or even close to it — because that’s not realistic. But we all must help those less fortunate and those who are currently struggling. Not only in the food industry, but in every industry. We should be a part of the process that allows for every working man and woman to earn a fair wage; one in which they can support their family. We rabbis must begin by ensuring that those men and women who clean our synagogues and teach our children are being paid adequately and treated fairly. Then we can branch out to the community-at-large.

Those are the ethics of hunger and homelessness. The ethics of fair rights for the working class. And those are the ethics by which we should strive to live.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
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Rogue Media Minyan

During my first year of rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, my Talmud teacher, Rabbi Avram Israel Reisner (right), came to me for some consultation. He knew I was tech savvy and interested in the Internet. It was 1998 and, as a member of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (“the Law Committee”), he was working on a teshuvah (Jewish legal opinion) about whether it was permissible to convene a minyan (prayer quorum) in the virtual world. Specifically, could one recite the Mourner’s Kaddish while taking part in a minyan that was convened virtually, over the Internet or through video-conferencing?

I was very much interested in discussing the issues surrounding a virtual minyan with Rabbi Reisner — both the halakhic ramifications and the technological issues. A year prior, as a college senior, I had written about the globalization of Judaism as a result of the Internet Age, and this was no doubt one way in which the concept of “community” in Jewish life would change as a result of innovations in technology and broadband communications.

Rabbi Reisner’s teshuva “Wired to the Kadosh Baruch Hu,” in which he concluded that “a minyan may not be constituted over the Internet, an audio- or video-conference, or any other medium of long distance communication,” passed by a majority vote in March 2001. All teshuvot of the Conservative Movement’s Law Committee are only considered recommendations, and thus I’m certain there are some who are reciting Kaddish for loved ones in virtual minyanim.

In fact, my teacher Rabbi Hayim Herring (left), wrote an article in The New York Jewish Week detailing the story of a “rogue media minyan.” His article titled “Challenges Of An Open-Source Age,” could have just as easily been called “Davening in the Digial Age.” Much has changed since everyone got high-speed Intenet connections at home and work, text messaging and e-mail on our phones are as common as sneezing, and video conferencing with friends in other continents is no longer challenging. Hayim writes:

About three years ago I received a call from a stranger who had a heartfelt dilemma. He wanted my opinion about whether digital davening with a minyan would fulfill his obligation to say Kaddish for a parent who had just died. He was concerned that saying Kaddish at his synagogue every day was not feasible and wanted to dedicate some days to gather a minyan via the Web. If so, should he ask his synagogue for help to sponsor a digital minyan? I vaguely recall making a comment about the idea being worth exploring and referred him to his congregational rabbi.

So much has changed since that telephone call, and today’s open-source environment, where information is increasingly open, available and less controlled, has led to a big leadership dilemma. Let’s imagine how this digital davening dilemma might play out today. The rabbi who gets the call may be empathetic but may discourage the idea, explaining the high value of being together in a community. A week later, the ritual director, quite concerned, asks the rabbi if he has heard about “the rogue media minyan.” The rabbi is surprised to learn that after the congregant called him, he contacted 50 friends (Facebook, Twitter, texting — pick your social media method), inviting them to be a part of digital davening group, so that he can say kaddish a few days a week. Some of the congregant’s friends are members of the same congregation; others are from across the country. He is quickly able to form a minyan. He and his friends use an electronic platform which enables them to webcast the service so that everyone can see and hear one another.

The rabbi meets with the congregant, perplexed by his behavior. Didn’t the congregant believe in the value of community? Now the congregant is confused. He explains that it was precisely the rabbi’s comments about community that prompted him to contact some of his father’s friends from out of town to participate in a Web-based minyan in his father’s memory. He says it was particularly meaningful to him to also have fellow congregants volunteer, especially those who would otherwise never participate in the synagogue’s daily minyan. It was this expanded notion of what community meant to the congregant that motivated him to act.

Now let’s fast forward to a year later. Within the year, two other members of the bricks-and-mortar congregation, who are also members of the digital davening group, lose a loved one. They don’t remember to inform the rabbi because they are already a part of the digital minyan, a satisfying experience for them. In fact, other people from across the country who have no original connection to the group are participating in it because the digital davening story went viral, and digital davening groups sprang up across the country and also spread to other countries.

The synagogue community is divided over their value, but these media minyanim continue to grow. This illustration is about rabbis and synagogues, but you can imagine how it can be rewritten for any Jewish setting.

There really is so much potential for spreading Jewish education across the globe using the Internet. Esther Kustanowitz is helping promote the’s live Kol Nidre service. It will be broadcast online this Yom Kippur for the many Jews who are unable to get to a synagogue (or due to the economy they can’t afford membership). By joining this Kol Nidre service online, through, they engage in their Jewish identity and connect to the Jewish calendar in a way that is accessible, affordable, non-alienating and convenient. The service is broadcast from Nashuva in Los Angeles, and is led by Rabbi Naomi Levy. The service will be accessible (and you can view last year’s recorded service) at There is actually a live band for Kol Nidre.

In addition to serving those Jews who are home-bound or cannot afford High Holy Day tickets, it is also a valuable resource for those Jews who are merely interested in seeing a different type of service. Maybe they would never attend a synagogue in which a live band played Kol Nidrei, but they might like to watch it for the experience.

Judaism is a several thousand-years-old religion and culture that has evolved over time. In this multimedia, high-speed communication, open-source age we are now living in, we must allow Judaism to adapt to these times by embracing new modes of communication and new concepts of community. Open-source Judaism will bolster the global Jewish community through shared ideas, collaboration, and best practices. Additionally, it will no doubt alter the long-held notions we’ve had about what constitutes such things as a minyan. Just as the Jewish people have figured out ways to strike a healthy balance between the Tradition and the innovations of modernity in the past generations, so too our generation will strike the right balance today.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Celebrities Jewish Jewish Law

Madoff and Pilot Sully

Rabbi Avi Shafran (right) never ceases to amaze me. He is the director of public affairs of Agudath Israel of America and the unofficial spokesman for Orthodox Judaism. Shafran is skilled, yet dangerous, with the pen. He has made a career out of writing op-ed pieces that defend Orthodoxy and delegitimize the non-Orthodox.

His latest op-ed piece is sure to shock. It is shocking in the way that the self-proclaimed “King of All Media”, Howard Stern, says outrageous and sensational things. People will do a double-take at the first sentence alone.

In his editorial for the JTA, “Bernie, Sully and Me”, Shafran writes:

Something tells me I won’t make any new friends (and might even lose some old ones) if I confess to harboring some admiration for Bernard Madoff.

And to make things worse, I can’t muster much for Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot who safely landed a full commercial airliner in the Hudson River back in January.

Let me try to explain. Please.

Mr. Madoff committed a serious economic crime on an unprecedented scale for such wrongdoing, and in the process ruined the financial futures of numerous people and institutions, including charitable ones, worldwide. There can be no denying that.

Rabbi Shafran makes the point that at least Bernie Madoff did teshuvah. He ceased his Ponzi scheme (after decades), confessed his sins, apologized, and will now serve prison time. Shafran finds Madoff’s contrition to be admirable and can’t understand how folks who were bilked by the Ponzi schemer, like Elie Wiesel, get off calling for horrific punishment for his sins. Shafran cites Jewish law which does not differentiate between one who steals a small amount of money (“pilfering a dime”) and a thief like Madoff who scammed people out of billions of dollars. Shafran seems to say that halakhically (according to Jewish law), Madoff is no worse than one who cheats on his taxes thereby “defrauding 300 million of his fellow citizens”.

Shafran then takes up the issue of whether Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger, the U.S. Airlines pilot who miraculously landed his doomed plane in the Hudson River, is a hero. He writes:

No such sublimity of spirit, though, was in evidence in any of the public acts or words of Mr. Sullenberger. He saved 155 lives, no doubt about it, and is certainly owed the gratitude of those he saved, and of their families and friends. And he executed tremendous skill.

But no moral choice was involved in his act. He was on the plane too, after all; his own life depended on undertaking his feat no less than the lives of others. He did what anyone in terrible circumstances would do: try to stay alive.

Shafran even goes so far as to criticize Pilot Sullenberger for not acknowledging God (“the One Who instilled such astounding abilities in His creations”) for the miracle or for granting him his piloting skills. That’s a harsh critique right there, but Shafran continues. He chastises Sullenberger for signing a $3 million book deal with HarperCollins and agreeing to a second book of inspirational poems, while Bernard Madoff will languish in jail for the rest of his life.

Shafran poetically concludes his essay declaring that he is “unmoved by the pilot, and, at least somewhat, inspired by the penitent”.

Okay, because he is a fine writer, Shafran is able to explain why he draws inspiration from Madoff and why the hero pilot doesn’t do anything for him. But, we should take this editorial for what it is: sensational journalism.

According to Maimonides, Madoff hasn’t even done teshuvah yet. Has he been in a position to commit the same crime again and chose not to? I don’t think we know the answer to that. With regard to Sullenberger, I suppose it’s true that he was on the plane too and his own life depended on undertaking his feat. But it was both his skill as a pilot, and his ability to perform under such pressure, that make him a hero. No one should try and take that away from him. And if he chooses not to publicly acknowledge his Creator, well, that’s his prerogative. And only someone like Rabbi Shafran would go the extreme of publicly admonishing him for this omission.

My conclusions: 1) Avi Shafran is a good writer; 2) Avi Shafran likes to make sensational statements that attract attention; 3) Bernie Madoff is still evil; 4) Pilot Sully is still a hero.

Update: On April 6, Avi Shafran issued an apology for his essay. Shafran wrote:

My recent Am Echad Resources essay “Bernie, Sully and Me” has generated substantial criticism from many readers, including people whose opinions I deeply respect. I have come to the conclusion that that there were errors in both the content and tone of the essay, for which I apologize. My main goal in publishing these essays is to help people understand eternal Jewish truths. Unfortunately, here I chose unsuitable examples for the concepts I sought to impart, failing to accomplish that goal and offending many people in the process. I am grateful, as always, for the constructive comments and feedback I received from my readership, whose confidence I hope to retain going forward.

JTA reported that both Rabbi Eric Yoffie (president of the Union for Reform Judaism) and Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb (head of the Orthodox Union) wrote blistering op-eds in response to Shafran’s views. Yoffie wrote that “Shafran completely misinterprets Jewish teachings on repentance” and his views demonstrate “ignorance of Jewish tradition”.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |