Honoring Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Today is the secular anniversary of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the preeminent theologian of the 20th century (his yahrzeit on the 18th of Tevet is next week). Many of my teachers at The Jewish Theological Seminary were students of Heschel’s and were highly influenced by his thinking and writing.

In Heschel’s memory I share my favorite story of Heschel as retold to me recently by Rabbi Gordon Tucker, one of his students: Heschel was sent by the Seminary to a Conservative synagogue to give a speech at a fundraising event. He went on and on for over an hour about his theology of humanity’s desire to conquer both Space and Time. It was highly intellectual and far over the heads of many in the audience who quickly lost focus. When Heschel was finally finished with his teaching, the president of the congregation got up and simply said: “You heard the rabbi, the Seminary needs more Space and there isn’t much Time!”

While Heschel died before I was born, his writings have had a significant impact on my own Jewish theology. In college I read Heschel’s The Sabbath which I have re-read several times since. My library has a dedicated shelf of Heschel’s works, many of which were inherited by me from my late Papa, David Gudes. My copies of Man in Search of God and The Prophets still have the dogeared pages that my Papa left.

In high school, as a member of USY’s AJ Heschel Society, I would stay up late at night learning about Heschel’s theology. I recall studying God in Search of Man with USY’s International Director Jules Gutin at International Convention in Los Angeles in 1993.

Over the years I have taught Heschel’s The Sabbath to adults and teens. The first time I taught that book to teens was as a college student at Camp CRUSY. It was after Shabbat dinner on a Friday night and somehow all twenty or so teens gave me their full attention. That was one of the pivotal moments in my decision to become a rabbi.

I also remember the first time I taught about Heschel’s theology of Shabbat to adults. It was during a Tikkun Leil Shavuot at Congregation B’nai Israel. Sitting next to the synagogue’s rabbi, Leonardo Bitran, I discussed how I fully embrace all the technological advances we have at the end of the 20th century and how my love of technology, electronics and automation often comes into conflict with Heschel’s Shabbat theology, which calls for a break from technological automation that makes our lives easier. Heschel believed that we humans use space to try and control time. I asked “Is Heschel’s notion of Shabbat a possibility? Can we, as humans in the 21st century, ever just allow ourselves to sanctify time without trying to conquer space and time in a tech-centered world?”

As society becomes even more dependent on technology in the 21st century, Heschel’s theology seems to gain importance. Heschel’s legacy is two-fold. He was a Jewish pioneer in the call for civil rights in our country and he pushed us to think intelligently about God’s role in our lives. Heschel’s ability to write poetically, if cryptically, about modern man’s challenge of letting time dictate our lives if only for a day has been a gift for generations and will be a gift for generations to come. May the righteous memory of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel continue to be for blessings.

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

Rabbi Autographs on Sports Balls

While I was in rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, I decided that I wanted a keepsake to remember the esteemed faculty. If it were high school, I suppose I could have asked my teachers to sign my yearbook. Since there were no year books around, I searched the house for something else to get autographed. A brand-new football caught my eye and with a white marker I began making my way around the Seminary in search of faculty members to put their John Hancock on my football. They were trilled to comply.

Prominent JTS faculty members like Chancellor Ismar Schorsch, Neil Gillman, Bill Lebeau, Burt Visotzky, Anne Lerner, Michael Greenbaum, Barry Holtz,  Aryeh Davidson, Stephen Geller, Robbie Harris, Raymond Scheindlin, Joe Lukinsky (of blessed memory), and Eduardo Rauch (of blessed memory). I placed the autographed football in a glass display case. When Purim rolled around I put it on display at the annual Purim Seudah with a note challenging, “Guess which professional team autographed this football.”

Little did I know that I didn’t have an original idea there. It turns out that a guy named Daniel Harris has been collecting autographs from famous rabbis for many decades. A recent article in Tablet, introduces us to Harris, who is the associate principal of Ida Crown Jewish Academy in Chicago. Harris explains that over time he outgrew his childhood role models and “realized he had exchanged players of physical brilliance for legends of spiritual grandeur—and that those were the heroes he wanted to recognize.” He goes so far as to claim that he’d take a baseball signed by a great rabbinic leader over one autographed by the great Babe Ruth.

Harris’s collection of rabbinicly autographed baseballs has grown recently and now includes ten baseballs from the leading Orthodox rabbis of our time including Rav Gedaliah Schwartz and Rabbi Berel Wein. Harris traded his signed Kenny Holtzman baseball to Rabbi Wein for his signature.

Autographed baseballs by prominent rabbis from Daniel Harris’s collection

Harris explained why he uses baseballs to collect these esteemed rabbis’ autographs. “Both baseball and, in a greater sense, Talmud, are full of nuance and great detail. Every time you enjoy learning a piece of Talmud you can come away with something new, as in baseball, where there is always some new play or game situation that you have never seen.”

I’m not looking to begin a collection of autographed baseballs from respected Seminary luminaries and well-known Conservative rabbis any time soon. However, I might just begin to collect personalized autographed baseballs from rock stars. Here’s my first in the collection from Vincent Damon Furnier, better known as Alice Cooper:

Alice Cooper autographed baseball


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

JTS Posts Warning in Beit Shemesh

Beit Shemesh, an Israeli neighborhood about 20 miles outside of Jerusalem, has been in the news quite a bit over the past year.

After the opening of the Orot Banot national-religious girls’ school in Beit Shemesh in September 2011, groups of radical Haredim gathered in front of the school, calling the girls names and spitting at them when they headed to and from school in clothing the extremists considered to be immodest by their strict standards. Some Haredi men were arrested on the suspicion of throwing eggs and tomatoes at students.

There was an international outcry at the end of 2011 after Haredim spat on an 8-year-old daughter of American immigrants and called her “a prostitute” for attending the school. After these and other harassment incidents in Beit Shemesh made international headlines, the US State Department updated its Jerusalem travel advisory in January 2012, advising visitors to “dress appropriately” when visiting ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, or to avoid them entirely.

Throughout ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods like Beit Shemesh there are pashkvils (advisory posters) admonishing about immodest dress for women and warning women to walk on the opposite side of the sidewalk from men. I never would have expected to see a pashkvil from my own rabbinic institution, but I learned today from the FailedMessiah blog that indeed the Jewish Theological Seminary is posting pashkvils in Beit Shemesh.

JTS Poster in Beit Shemesh
Source: Michael Rose, Judaica Book Centre via Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

According to my colleague Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky,the JTS pashkvil calls upon people not to use the Morasha le-Hanḥil edition of the Shulḥan Arukh as it violates the copyright of the Jewish Theological Seminary. The pashkvil is produced on official JTS letterhead and signed by the Seminary’s Librarian Dr. David Kraemer.

Dr. David Kraemer, Librarian of the Jewish Theological Seminary
Dr. David Kraemer, Librarian of the Jewish Theological Seminary



The pashkvil refers to the Seminary’s licensed edition of the publication as stolen property because of the copyright violation. As Rabbi Pitkowsky explains on his blog, “apparently, JTS gave permission to Mechon Rosh Pina to publish a manuscript from their collection, Rabbi Shemaryah Brandris’s commentary on the Shulḥan Arukh, Rosh Pina. Morasha le-Hanḥil has apparently published in their edition of the Shulḥan Arukh Brandris’s commentary without JTS’s permission.”

I would like to see posters displayed throughout Beit Shemesh from JTS, or other Conservative or Reform institutions, admonishing the Haredim for their lack of modesty and their bad behavior when they harass young women. However, I must admit that it’s funny to see a JTS pashkvil on the streets of Beit Shemesh. While I have my doubts, I certainly hope the Seminary is able to protect its copyrights in their book publishing endeavors. And I hope these posters remain on display long enough for the citizens of Beit Shemesh to actually read them.

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

Why Jewish Summer Camp Remains Hot Investment for Donors

Professor Arnold Eisen, a scholar of American Judaism and the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, proclaimed, “Nothing I do to build Jewish life, Jewish education, or the Jewish community is more important than getting more kids to Jewish camps.”

Those are strong words from the ivory tower and quite the endorsement of Jewish summer camp. But Eisen wasn’t the only head of a major Jewish academic institution who lauded Jewish summer camping at the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s recent Leaders Assembly. He shared the stage with Richard Joel and Rabbi David Ellenson, the presidents of the Orthodox and Reform academies respectively, who both agreed that the answer to Jewish continuity can be found at summer camp.

All three academicians extolled the virtues of the summer camp experience for young Jewish children who seamlessly go from overnight hiking and canoe trips to Friday evening Shabbat services by the lake. The leaders of Yeshiva University, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Hebrew Union College took turns standing in front of 400 Jewish camping leaders at the FJC gathering – from camp directors to donors – to explain how their denomination would help to grow the Jewish camping phenomenon in the coming years. These schools train Jewish educators – most of whom discovered or strengthened their Jewish identity at summer camp – and with a $45 million investment from the Jim Joseph Foundation (divided among the three institutions) they will be able to prepare more young people who wish to work in the informal Jewish educational field of Jewish camping.

With over $90 million of philanthropic contributions coming through the FJC since its founding 13 years ago to benefit Jewish camping, it is clear that this is where donors are investing the most capital in what has become known as “Jewish continuity.”

Approximately 72,000 Jewish children currently attend a Jewish summer camp. The statistics show that the Jewish summer camp experience has a tremendous effect on children and their Jewish identity. A recent study by the renowned sociologist Steven M. Cohen commissioned by the FJC shows that Jewish campers grow up to be connected to Jewish life and identify proudly within the Jewish community as adults. “The analysis indicates that they bring, first of all, an increased inclination to practice Jewish behaviors in their lives, from Shabbat candle lighting to using Jewish websites, and to appreciate the value of Jewish charity,” Cohen concludes in the study. “Secondly, they bring an increased inclination to value and seek out the experience of Jewish community, whether in the immediate sense of joining other Jews in prayer or in the more abstract sense of identifying with fellow Jews in Israel.”

Most Jewish summer camps are nonprofits and, historically, have not been able to compete with the lavish facilities and stellar sports programs at the privately owned for-profit camps. But that is changing. Over the past decade the hottest cause for major philanthropists in the Jewish community has been funding the growth of Jewish summer camps, which means seeding new camps and ensuring there are ample need-based scholarships to afford all young Jewish children the ability to experience the magic of camp.

Camp leaders have long recognized that a main reason more young people don’t make Jewish camping part of their annual summer experience has been because they choose to focus on one interest like drama or a particular sport and seek out camps that specialize in those activities. FJC has put its attention into funding such specialty camps that concentrate on one main interest category but also infuse the Jewish magic for which Jewish camps have been known. FJC was able to open five new camps in 2010 as a result of the first Specialty Camps Incubator – based on a business incubator model – and now the second wave of that program has been launched resulting from the $8.6 million investment by the AVI CHAI Foundation together with the Jim Joseph Foundation.

There seems to be something inherently Jewish about summer camp. Indeed, when Jewish adults gather the conversation inevitably turns to Jewish camp memories filled with nostalgia. When two adult Jews meet for the first time, the game of “Jewish Geography” ensues and “Which camp did you go to?” and “Did you know so-and-so who went to that camp?” are the unavoidable questions.

As Eisen has written about Jewish summer camp, “For once in these kids’ lives, Jewishness is not something they are or do off to the side of life, in Hebrew school or synagogue. It is not a subject for debate but simply there, taken for granted, a part of what happens 24/7.”

No matter what the activity – from baseball and boating to crafts and campfires – the social aspects of Jewish camp all play out in a constant Jewish milieu. The benefits of those summer experiences are reaped over the course of a lifetime for the Jewish individual, and in turn for the Jewish community as well. Spring is upon us and we are now focused on Passover, but thousands of young Jewish children are already counting the days until school vacation and their own exodus to the freedom of another memorable summer at Jewish camp.

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

Warren Buffett Invests in Chametz

Usually when Warren Buffett makes a deal it is the big news of the day on CNBC and in the Wall Street Journal. But the Oracle of Omaha’s recent deal probably won’t get much attention and it certainly won’t have to be reported to the Security and Exchange Committee.

The Omaha World-Herald reported today that Rabbi Jonathan Gross of the Orthodox Beth Israel Synagogue in West Omaha chose Warren Buffett to be the non-Jewish buyer of the congregant’s chametz (leavened food products that are forbidden on Passover). Buffett, at 81-years-old, is the third-richest man in the world with a $44 billion net worth according to the recent Forbes list of billionaires.

Warren Buffett accepts the four 50-cent pieces from Rabbi Jon Gross during the chametz sale.

While Jews are required to rid their homes, offices and automobiles of all chametz products, there is a “legal fiction” that allows Jews to “sell” leavened goods that can’t be thrown away to a non-Jew who then sells the goods back following the holiday. A rabbi usually serves as the agent who transacts the deal on behalf of the congregation or community.

Before transacting the chametz deal with Buffett, Rabbi Gross explained the custom to the famous investor and head of Berkshire Hathaway Holdings. According to the Omaha World-Herald, Gross said, “Price is low before Passover. Price is high afterward. It’s a great short-term investment. So who would really appreciate this better than Warren Buffett?”

“The beauty of being an agnostic is that you are in no position to make any judgment about anything,” Buffett said in an interview. “You can join in on anything.”

Buffett said he decided to participate because the annual pre-Passover chametz sale is “a ceremony of enormous importance to Jews.” The only problem with Rabbi Gross’ planned arrangement with Buffett was that Passover begins this year at sunset on April 6 and due to his busy schedule, Buffett wanted to meet in late February (six weeks before Passover). Gross decided to keep the meeting with Buffett, because he wanted to raise awareness about the need for donations to the Food Bank for the Heartland.

To complete the ceremonial chametz sale Rabbi Gross gave Warren Buffett four 50-cent pieces along with a bottle of single-malt Scotch, a loaf of home-baked challah bread, and Buffett’s favorite snack, a bag of Cheetos (which incidentally aren’t kosher, but Gross wrote on his blog: “Cheetos are not kosher, but there is no problem buying a bag of them for someone who is not Jewish.”). Gross also handed Buffett two sets of keys — one to Beth Israel Synagogue and one to Gross’ west Omaha home, where the box and drums of food are kept. (Buffett agreed to donate the food to the food bank.)

The Oracle of Omaha and the west Omaha rabbi shook hands to complete the deal and Buffett even returned the 50-cent coins to the rabbi. He joked that now that he knows the asking price — four coins — he’ll bargain down to two coins next year. “Why didn’t anyone tell me about this earlier? This is a great investment,” Buffett said. “I could have been doing this for years.”

Rabbi Myer Kripke with Rabbi Jonathan Gross in Omaha, Nebraska

Gross, an Orthodox rabbi, also included Rabbi Myer Kripke in the purchase agreement with Buffett and brought the 98-year-old rabbi along with him to Buffett’s office. Rabbi Kripke is a retired Conservative rabbi who has been friends with Buffett for over 50 years, since the time they were were neighbors in Dundee. Rabbi Kripke’s late wife, Dorothy, wrote a children’s book series entitled “Let’s Talk About…” and Warren Buffett’s wife loved to read those books to her children. When she learned the author lived close by in Dundee she wanted to meet her. That is how the Kripkes and Buffets became dear friends. In the 1960s Buffett had the Kripke’s invest a small inheritance they had received from a relative in Berkshire Hathaway and from that investment they became millionaires many times over. That fortune allowed Myer and Dorothy Kripke to donate $10 million to the Jewish Theological Seminary to rebuild the tower under which the couple had been married decades earlier. That tower, which originally housed the Seminary’s library was severely damaged in a fire in 1966. Today it is known as the Kripke Tower.

On a personal note, Rabbi Kripke was very helpful in connecting me with Warren Buffett in 2009 when my uncle was diagnosed with Pancreatic cancer and given only a few months to live. I called Rabbi Kripke and told him how wonderful it would be if my uncle could play a round of golf at Augusta National where Mr. Buffett is a member. Within ten minutes I received a call from Mr. Buffett’s secretary Debbie Bosanek, who told me that she just asked Mr. Buffett (who was on a trans-Atlantic flight at the time) and he explained that Augusta National members were no longer allowed to grant such requests. Well, at least I tried and I’ll always be grateful to Rabbi Kripke for his assistance.

Back to Rabbi Gross and his chametz sale to Warren Buffett. I think this was an absolutely brilliant idea that Rabbi Gross had because it will make the sale of chametz more widely known. Perhaps because of Warren Buffett’s connection with this story, more Jews will make the effort to rid their homes of chametz before the Passover holiday and ensure that they include their name in their synagogue’s chametz sale.

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

Jesus, We Can Finally Talk About Jesus

I’ve always said that the only times Jewish people mention Jesus are when they stub their toe, miss the bus, or tell you about their theater tickets to a certain Andrew Lloyd Webber rock opera. Two new books will change that. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s Kosher Jesus and The Jewish Annotated New Testament (edited by Marc Z. Brettler and Amy-Jill Levine). The former discusses the Jewish life of Jesus of Nazareth and the latter is a newly revised edition of the Christian Scriptures with notes and essays from Jewish scholars in the hope of making the “New Testament” accessible to Jews.

In my final years of rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, I was living and working in Caldwell, New Jersey as a rabbinic intern. One of the congregants at the synagogue, Agudath Israel, was a professor at the College of St. Elizabeth in Morristown, New Jersey. She asked me to give a presentation about Judaism to the women in her undergraduate class. In preparation for my visit she asked the students to submit a list of five questions each that they would like me to consider. Without any exaggeration, a full 90% of the students included at least one question about Jesus Christ in their list.

I had received questions from Christians in the past concerning the Jewish view of Jesus, but that experience confirmed for me just how curious Christians are about how Jews understand Jesus in both historical and theological perspectives. Many of the women in that class at the College of St. Elizabeth were surprised to learn that Jews do not consider Jesus to be the messiah and the entire class was shocked to discover that Jesus’ teachings were not part of the required coursework I was doing in my rabbinical school studies. By far, to this day the most frequent questions I receive from Christians all have to do with the Jewish understanding of Jesus.

The topic of the contemporary view of Jesus among Jews has long been stuck somewhere between taboo and “we just don’t talk about it”. But now, thanks to two new books it is front and center. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who refers to himself as “America’s Rabbi” has written a new controversial book that will be released next week. For those who thought Boteach’s Kosher Sex was too radical, his new Kosher Jesus is sure to ruffle feathers. With Boteach, it is difficult to know if he writes these provocative books and articles because he’s genuinely passionate about the scholarly discussion it will generate or if he just lusts after the spotlight. Still playing up his friendship with the late Michael Jackson and very passively campaigning to be the next Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has been busy publicly questioning what all this fuss is about with his new book. In truth, Boteach knows that every Orthodox rabbi and scholar — from Chabad Lubavitch to the Haredim — who attack Kosher Jesus as blasphemous and its author as a heretic are only helping his book sales.

Boteach loves the attention he’s getting and in the weeks leading up to its release has been penning article after article fighting back against his naysayers. In a recent Jerusalem Post article, Boteach wrote, “Unless you’ve been a space-tourist with Virgin Galactic the past few weeks you will know that on [sic] February my new book will be published.” (There’s no doubt in my mind he received a generous kickback from Virgin’s Richard Branson for mentioning Galactic.) Media attention aside, I think Boteach’s book is important and will finally make it “kosher” for Jews to learn about and discuss Jesus as the historical figure.

Boteach’s book portrays the actual story of Jesus’ Jewish life as told in both early Christian and Jewish sources. If you ask most Jews to tell you about the historical figure of Jesus, their response often turns fuzzy after a quick introduction that he was Jewish. Kosher Jesus explains how Jesus was a Torah-observant teacher who instructed his followers to observe the Torah. Jesus’ teachings were quoted extensively from the Torah. And before being murdered by Pontius Pilate, Jesus fought Roman paganism and persecution of the Jewish people. His death was retribution for his rebellion against Rome.

No matter what one believes Boteach’s intentions were in writing this book (more fame, more money, a Chief Rabbi position, setting the academic record straight, or a combination thereof), he clearly did his research on the subject and has taken away the taboo of Jews discussing Jesus of Nazareth. Hopefully, Boteach’s book will give Jews the ability to go a little deeper in their understanding of Jesus. This will be helpful for rabbis like me who often field questions about Jesus from Christians, but it will also prove useful for Jews living in predominantly Christian areas as well as for the Jewish college student with a Christian roommate or agressive missionaries on campus.

Rembrandt’s portrayal of Jesus is more apparently Jewish than other artistic renderings

As I have been reading the many criticisms of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and his Kosher Jesus, one thing that I’ve noticed is the strong discomfort his attackers have with even mentioning Jesus. As Josh Fleet mentioned in his Huffington Post article, some of Boteach’s critics refuse to even type out the name Jesus. Instead they refer to Boteach’s book as Kosher J. abbreviating the name of Jesus in a way that is reminiscent of how they refuse to spell out the word “God” or “Lord” choosing instead to use “G-d” or “L-rd”. This struck me as odd as it seems to put Jesus in the same category as God whose name must not be rendered in print (even though the English words “God” and “Lord” are not actual names for the Jewish deity and I’ve never understood a ban on spelling out God’s name in Latin characters). In any event, it is similarly odd that many of Boteach’s critics who are eager to put him in herem (excommunication) for having the chutzpah to publish a book about Jesus of Nazareth are the same Chabad Lubavitch members who seem to be placing their bets that the late Lubavitch rebbe is the messiah. One man’s false messiah is another man’s god. One man’s spiritual leader is another man’s messiah.

I especially like the way Josh Fleet concludes his article about the sharp criticism of Kosher Jesus. Fleet writes, “In 2012, the topic of Jesus should not be a Jewish taboo. If we believe so much that our relationship with Christianity is based on deceit, tragedy and senseless hatred — that it has broken us — then we are obligated to believe it can be based on trust, opportunity and boundless love — that it can be fixed.” Well stated, and I believe that what will equally help fix the way Jews deal with the topic of the historical Jesus will be the new contribution by Brandeis Professor Marc. Z. Brettler and Vanderbilt Prof. Amy-Jill Levine. Their new version of the New Testament is revolutionary in that it has been published for Jews.

I am always surprised when Christians are surprised that New Testament studies was not part of my academic courses in rabbinical school. No matter how many times I explain that Jews do not believe our Torah has been superseded by the “New Testament”, Christians still don’t understand this concept. It’s as if they think that we’re big fans of the first Godfather movie and yet refuse to watch the sequel. In truth, most Jews who are knowledgeable about the Jewish Bible have little clue about the narrative of the “New Testament”. One of the primary reasons for this has been the Jewish ban on studying Christian religious texts for theologically dogmatic reasons. However, the new version that Brettler and Levine have put forth seems to make this scholarship safe for Jewish students.

An article in the USA Today explains Prof. Levine’s intentions in completing this project:

The project, published in November by Oxford University Press, is the latest effort in Levine’s lifelong quest to help Jews and Christians understand each other better. 

That quest started when she was growing up among Portuguese Roman Catholics in North Dartmouth, Mass. She was fascinated by her schoolmates’ faith and horrified when one of them told her that the Jews had killed God by crucifying Jesus. 

She made it her life’s work to prevent Christians from spreading that kind of anti-Semitic claim and to help build a bridge between the two faiths. 

After all, she said, Jesus and his early followers were Jews. So the two faiths have much in common. 

The Annotated New Testament points out places where Christians get Judaism wrong.
“The volume flags common anti-Jewish stereotypes, shows why they are wrong and provides readings so that the Gospel is not heard as a message of hate,” Levine wrote in an email. “These stereotypes include the Old Testament/Jewish God of wrath vs. the New Testament God of love and the view that Judaism epitomized misogyny and xenophobia.”

When you consider how little most Jews know about Jesus from a historical perspective, it is actually an exciting time when this discussion will no longer be taboo. While some religious Jews will claim it is dangerous to read books like Kosher Jesus or to have Brettler and Levine’s commentary of the “New Testament” on your bookshelf for reference, I actually think that this will lead to better Jewish-Christian dialogue. It will also alleviate so much of the misinformation and ignorance that many Jews have about Christianity and its roots. I’m eager to see where this leads and I’m grateful to Rabbi Shmuley Boteach for having the conviction to publish Kosher Jesus, and to Profs. Brettler and Levine for using their scholarship to educate us on a religion about which we have been hesitant to learn more.

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

Mitch Albom’s Having a Very Jewish Year

Last month when I encouraged my friends to attend the Michigan Jewish Sports Hall of Fame’s annual induction dinner I made certain to tell them that local Detroit sportswriter Mitch Albom was being inducted. I figured that would be a draw. I was surprised by the response that many of them had — “Mitch Albom’s Jewish?” they asked.

Mitch Albom’s Michigan Jewish Sports Hall of Fame plaque that will hang
in the Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit.

Apparently they hadn’t read his most recent book “Have a Little Faith,” in which Mitch Albom’s childhood rabbi asks him to deliver the eulogy at his funeral. The book has been turned into a made-for-TV movie and will be broadcast tonight at 9:00 PM on ABC. Some of the movie was filmed at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield with many members of the local Jewish community in the seats as extras. The movie stars Laurence Fishburne (as the late Pastor Henry Covington), Martin Landau (as Rabbi Albert Lewis) and Bradley Whitford (as Mitch Albom).

Growing up in Detroit and reading Mitch Albom’s sports columns since he arrived here in 1985, I have always known he was Jewish. It wasn’t a secret, but it also wasn’t something Albom discussed. I first met Albom in 1996 when he was honored by the Anti-Defamation League when I was serving a college internship there. I already owned all of his books which included several volumes of “The Live Albom” (collections of his sports columns) and his books about University of Michigan football coach Bo Shembechler and U-M basketball’s Fab Five dream team.

Meeting Mitch Albom for the first time in 1996.

Albom was already well known on the national scene as a sportswriter through his frequent appearances on ESPN, but it wasn’t until his autobiographical book “Tuesdays with Morrie” came out in 1997 that he gained international attention and local fame. There were only a few references to Albom’s Jewishness in the book and even when he spoke about the book at Jewish book fairs around the country Albom didn’t say much about his own faith. When I first met Rabbi David Wolpe in 1996 he told me that he had been a Jewish day school classmate of Mitch Albom’s at Akiba Hebrew Academy in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania (and that he was currently reading the galleys of a book Albom was writing about his college professor who had died).

His “Have a Little Faith” book was Albom’s first time publicly writing about his childhood in a Jewish day school and his relationship with his beloved rabbi, the late Rabbi Albert Lewis. While he doesn’t belong to any local congregation, Albom developed a nice relationship with Rabbi Harold Loss of Temple Israel, a very large Reform congregation in suburban Detroit.

With Mitch Albom and Dave Barry at an event in 2009 to raise funds
for Albom’s Hole in the Roof Foundation.

Perhaps due to the publication of “Have a Little Faith,” Mitch Albom is now more amenable to be honored by Jewish organizations. The ADL event where I first met him was much less a Jewish cause at the time and seen more as a humanitarian organization whose main project was the “A World of Difference” institute in which anti-bias education and diversity training were at the core of its mission. This past May, Albom received an honorary degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary, the same institution where his beloved Rabbi Albert Lewis had been ordained some fifty years prior.

Earlier this month Albom was inducted into the Michigan Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. His speech (video below) began with an apology that he had not been more involved in the Michigan Jewish Sports Foundation during his long career in Detroit. He then used the rest of his time to speak about his college professor, Morrie Schwartz, and the lessons he learned while caring for him as he lay dying in bed.

Albom has become very generous in his philanthropic causes relating to homelessness in the City of Detroit (a main theme of “Have a Little Faith”) and a mission/orphanage in Haiti. Albom’s Hole in the Roof Foundation helped raise and distribute funds to fix the roof of a church/homeless shelter in Detroit (I Am My Brother’s Keeper) and also rebuilt the Caring and Sharing Mission and Orphanage in Port-au-Prince, Haiti (where he has taken his childhood friend Rabbi David Wolpe).

The work he has done with his Hole in the Roof Foundation is certainly in line with Judaism’s value of Tikkun Olam (helping to repair the world). Perhaps Mitch Albom will also become more involved in local and national Jewish causes as he lives out the lessons he’s learned in life. He has certainly done a good job sharing the wisdom of his own teachers like Morrie Schwartz and Rabbi Albert Lewis.

Here is the trailer for tonight’s premier of “Have a Little Faith”:

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

Warren Buffett: Good for the Jews?

One of the highlights of my six years in Rabbinical School at The Jewish Theological Seminary was giving tours of the Seminary to visiting groups. I attended a training session, led by the director of donor relations Rebecca Jacobs, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving during my first year at JTS. I loved hearing the story of how the Seminary’s library tower caught fire on April 18, 1966 damaging thousands of books and how thirty years later a JTS-ordained pulpit rabbi from Omaha donated the funds to renovate that same tower.

I gave over 200 tours of the Seminary, but I never grew tired of telling the story of how a humble rabbi from the south amassed a fortune big enough to make a $7 million cash donation to name the new Seminary tower. The story is that this rabbi’s wife, Dorothy Kripke, wrote a series of children’s books entitled “Let’s Talk About…” and another Omaha woman loved to read these books to her children. When she found out that the author lived close by she decided she had to meet her. Well, as fate would have it, this woman and her husband became dear friends of Rabbi Myer and Dorothy Kripke. This woman’s husband even offered to invest the small inheritence left to Mrs. Kripke. That investment paid off big because it was invested by Warren Buffett, the second wealthiest American according to Forbes magazine.

I’ll never forget the time I asked a group of school children if they knew how Rabbi Kripke became a millionaire. One of the little girls offered, “Maybe he gave really good sermons?”
Here’s a JTA article about Warren Buffett who recently invested $4 billion in an Israeli company:

Long before Israeli deal, Buffett made his mark on Jewish community
By Chanan Tigay
NEW YORK, May 16 (JTA) – Warren Buffett is not a Jew, and in fact describes himself as an agnostic.

Still, the billionaire investment guru, who earlier this month made big news when his Berkshire Hathaway corporation bought an 80 percent share in Israeli metalworks conglomerate Iscar for $4 billion, for years has been making his mark on the U.S. Jewish community back home – though sometimes in a roundabout way.


“Proportionally, if you look at the number of Jews in this country and in the world, I’m associated with a hugely disproportionate number,” Buffett, the second richest man in the world, told JTA in a telephone interview Monday. His life, he added, “has been blessed by friendship with many Jews.”


Among the first companies Buffett acquired after launching Berkshire Hathaway, the Omaha-based investment and insurance giant, was The Sun Newspapers of Omaha, then owned by Stan Lipsey, one-time chairman of The Jewish Press, Omaha’s Jewish newspaper.


“At the time, the Omaha Club did not take Jewish members, and the Highland Country Club, a golf club, didn’t have any gentile members,” Lipsey recalls. “Warren volunteered to join the Highland” -rather than the gentile club – “to set an example of non-discrimination.”


Buffett happily recalls the fallout from his application.


“It created this big rhubarb,” he says. “All of the rabbis appeared on my behalf, the ADL guy appeared on my behalf. Finally they voted to let me in.”


But that wasn’t the end of the story, Buffett tells JTA. The Highland had a rule requiring members to donate a certain amount of money to their synagogues. Buffett, of course, wasn’t a synagogue member, so the club changed its policy: Members now would be expected to give to their synagogues, temples or churches.


But that still didn’t quite work, Buffett recalls with a laugh, because of his agnosticism.


In the end, the rule was amended to ask simply that members make some sort of charitable donation, and the path to Buffet’s membership was clear.


“He’s an incredible guy,” says Lipsey, today the publisher of the Buffalo News. In 1973, The Sun won a Pulitzer prize in Local Investigative Specialized Reporting for an expose on financial impropriety at Boys Town, Nebraska.


“Warren came up with the key source for us knowing what was going on out there,” Lipsey says.


Buffett himself researched Boys Town’s stocks to bolster the story, Lipsey adds.


In the 1960s, Omaha Rabbi Myer Kripke decided to invest in his friend Buffett’s new business venture. Their wives had become friendly, he says, and the foursome enjoyed playing the occasional game of bridge together.


“My wife had no card sense and I was certainly no competition to Warren, who is a very good bridge player and a lover of the game,” Kripke, rabbi emeritus of Omaha’s Conservative Beth El Synagogue, told JTA. “He’s very bright and very personable and very decent. He is a rich man who is as clean as can be.”


Kripke, father of the noted philosopher Saul Kripke, bought a few shares in Berkshire Hathaway and quickly sold them, doubling his money, he says.


Recognizing a good thing when he saw it, he bought a bunch more shares in his friend’s company, shares that by the 1990s had made Kripke – who says he never earned more than $30,000 a year as a rabbi – a millionaire.


Kripke met his late wife, the children’s book author Dorothy Kripke, at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the flagship institution of the Conservative movement, where Kripke was ordained as a rabbi in 1937.


In 1996, flush from their prescient investment with Buffet’s company, the couple decided to make a major gift to JTS – $7 million in cash to restore the building’s damaged tower, and a deferred gift of some $8 million, which the seminary will receive after Kripke passes away.


“Rabbi Kripke had the heart to make a donation to JTS, he had the will to make a donation, he had the desire to make a donation – but if he had not had the means to make a donation, the recreation of our tower would never have happened,” says Rabbi Carol Davidson, the seminary’s vice chancellor for institutional advancement. “It was really only possible because of their prior investment many years ago with Warren Buffett.”


Kripke – who says he’s still got a picture of Buffett’s late wife, Susan, on his bulletin board – concurs. Asked if he credits Buffett with his financial success, he doesn’t hesitate.


“Entirely, yes,” he says. “I never had much of an income.”


The Israeli government stands to reap about $1 billion in taxes on Buffett’s purchase of Iscar. Shortly after announcing the deal, Buffett says he was surprised to learn that a Berkshire subsidiary, CTB International, was purchasing a controlling interest in another Israeli company, AgroLogic.


In Israel – which Buffett plans to visit in the fall – the hope is that the deals will have longer legs: Buffett himself has not ruled out future purchases there and, considering his status as a leading investor, observers say others also may take a look at Israeli companies now that Buffett has done so.


“You won’t find in the world a better-run operation than Iscar,” Buffett says. “I don’t think it’s an accident that it’s run by Israelis.”


The Sun newspaper group was not Buffett’s only early purchase of a Jewish-owned company. In 1983, sealing the deal with a handshake, Buffett bought 90 percent of the Nebraska Furniture Mart from Rose Blumkin, a Russian-born Jew who moved to the United States in 1917.


In 1989, he purchased a majority of the stock in Borsheim’s Fine Jewelry and Gifts, a phenomenally successful jewelry store, from the Friedman family.


“He has many friends in the Jewish community,” says Forrest Krutter, secretary of Berkshire Hathaway and a former president of the Jewish Federation of Omaha.


Buffett’s former son-in-law, Allen Greenberg, is a Jew, and now runs the Buffett Foundation, much of whose work has dealt with reproductive rights and family-planning issues. Buffett’s personal assistant is Ian Jacobs, who goes by his Hebrew name, Shami.


Buffett himself counts the late Nebraska businessman Howard “Micky” Newman and philanthropist Jack Skirball as among his “very closest friends.”


Further, Buffett says his “hero and the man who made me an investment success” was Ben Graham. Graham, along with Newman’s father, Jerry, ran a New York fund called Graham-Newman Corp.


“After besieging Ben for the three years after I received my degree from Columbia, Ben and Jerry finally hired me,” Buffett says. “I was the first gentile ever employed by the firm – including secretaries – in its 18 years of existence. My first son bears the middle name Graham after Ben.”


Buffett “is very much honored in the Jewish community,” Kripke says.

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