Barack Obama, Marriage Equality and Lag Ba’Omer

On Tuesday, October 28, 2003 I clicked “Publish” for the first time on this blog. This is my 1,000th blog post.

In my first blog post I simply wrote, “Welcome to my new Blog. I haven’t yet decided what I will use this forum for, but we’ll see. It will likely have some of my writings, as well as some news articles that I find of interest. Thanks for visiting and enjoy!” No one read it.

Now, over eight-and-a-half years later my blog has been visited over half-a-million times and each post averages 1,000 readers.

So, what should my 1,000th blog post be about I wondered. I decided to take the advice I give to would-be-bloggers all the time: “Write about what’s happening in the world and how it affects you and your community.”

Yesterday was Lag Ba’Omer, the thirty-third day of the Counting of the Omer. During this time of year almost 2,000 years ago, the Jewish tradition teaches, a plague killed thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students because they did not treat one another respectfully. According to a medieval tradition, this plague ended on Lag Ba’Omer. Thus, in modern times Lag Ba’Omer is treated as a festive day with celebration.

Yesterday, on Lag Ba’Omer 2012, President Barack Obama became the first sitting president to fully endorse same-sex marriage. There will be those who will surmise that the President’s statements were made for political gain, but his words were powerful and historic and appreciated by millions.

Homosexuality is not an easy subject to deal with in Judaism. Based on a few words in the Torah, the issue is one of the most divisive in Jewish communities today. However, in very recent years and based on several monumental decisions, many in the more progressive Jewish communities have come to see this issue as a matter of human dignity (Hebrew: k’vod habriyot).

For gays and lesbians who have fought for marriage equality, Lag Ba’Omer 2012 was an epic day in which a plague ended.

Marriage in the minds of millions is the joining of a man and a woman in a holy union. We all have that traditional image of marriage because that is all we have known. However, times change. And with the changing of the times, the conventions we have long maintained change as well.

For many Jewish people, the Torah’s stance on homosexuality will continue to be clear, certain and immutable. However, for a good many people, there is much room for interpretation. And the interpretation of the Torah will be impacted by several factors including the dignity of real, living and breathing human beings who desire to love and be loved. Human beings who seek the equal rights of marriage regardless of their sexual orientation.

When I began my rabbinical studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York in 1998, I believed that homosexuality was a sin in Judaism. Admittedly, I hadn’t spent much time studying the applicable texts in the Torah or the commentary on the subject. I also didn’t know any gay or lesbian people (or at least I didn’t know they were gay or lesbian at the time). Throughout the course of my time at JTS, I came to understand how our community’s treatment of gays and lesbians has real and lasting effects on people’s lives. I got involved in a group called Keshet (rainbow), which advocated for the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the rabbinical and cantorial schools of JTS.

During my final year at JTS I served as President of the Rabbinical School Student Organization. On the last day of my term in office, I signed off on a major allocation of funds to be directed to Keshet and used for programming to educate the Seminary community about LGBT issues. During my first years as a rabbi I watched with great interest as JTS students worked hard to encourage the Seminary to open its doors to gays and lesbians who wished to lead the Jewish community as rabbis and cantors. With great admiration and appreciation from afar, I witnessed change being implemented.

The passing of a teshuva (religious opinion) by the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards in December 2006 paved the way for gays and lesbians to enter JTS in the rabbinical and cantorial schools. The teshuva was co-authored by my teacher and friend, Rabbi Danny Nevins, who now serves as the dean of the rabbinical school there. It was his understanding that LGBT issues fit into the category of human dignity that served as the foundation of the teshuva.

Just as we’ve seen major change occur with regard to domestic partner benefits, the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis and cantors, and the ability for rabbis to perform commitment ceremonies, we are now witnessing the epic moment when marriage equality will be realized for the LGBT community. President Obama’s statement will be regarded as a watershed moment for this cause.

Same-sex marriage does not mean we no longer take the word of the Torah to heart. It doesn’t mean we are overruling God. It means that we are giving homosexuals the same rights to be in a committed, loving relationship that has been blessed and sanctified. That is certainly a matter of human dignity in my opinion.

Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition, teaches that the appearance of a rainbow will bring redemption just as a rainbow appeared following the great flood in biblical times.

In addition to Lag Ba’Omer being the day on which the plague was lifted from the students of Rabbi Akiva and they stopped dying, it also corresponds with the date on which Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai died. While the anniversary of a great sage’s death seems an odd time to celebrate, we learn that on the day Rabbi Shimon passed away a great light of endless joy filled the day. The happiness on that day was to the sage and his students “like that of a groom while standing under the canopy at his wedding.” In modern times, religious Jews flock to the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in the city of Meron on Lag Ba’Omer where they sing and dance.

Another tradition on Lag Ba’Omer is for children to play with bows and arrows. The “bow” symbolizes a rainbow because it is believed that a rainbow was never seen during the lifetime of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Tradition tells us that the sage himself was the sign of the rainbow.

And so, it is inspiring and meaningful that on Lag Ba’Omer, a day celebrated for a plague ending and the anniversary of the death of a great sage who was compared to a rainbow (Hebrew: keshet), the symbol of the LGBT pride movement, the President of the United States articulated his convictions that gays and lesbians should have the right to marry.

May the gentle radiance of the rainbow be a sign of God’s blessings on all of us who seek dignity and equality for all human beings. May the love that two people have for each other, regardless of sexual orientation, be blessed and made sanctified for the entirety of their lives together. Thank you Mr. President for helping to bring about this necessary freedom of equality.

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

Israel’s Conservative Seminary Accepts Gays and Lesbians on Yom Hashoah

The Schechter Institute in Jerusalem is the Israeli affiliate of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS). It has publicly been holding out on changing its policy concerning the admission of gays and lesbians into its rabbinical ordination program (the only such program for the Conservative movement in Israel). That policy has caused much tension for rabbinical students from the Jewish Theological Seminary when they spend a year in Israel during the course of their study (gay and lesbian rabbinical students from JTS are allowed to take classes at Schechter). In fact, rabbinical students from the Conservative Movement’s West Coast seminary, the Ziegler School at the American Jewish University, study at the Conservative Yeshiva during their year abroad.

The big news coming out of Israel is that the Schechter Institute’s policy has just officially changed. It has been announced that at a board of trustees meeting last night, Schechter’s leaders voted to allow gay and lesbian students into its ordination program. That this policy change occurred on Yom Hashoah, the international day of commemoration for the millions who perished at the hands of the Nazis is especially meaningful as homosexuals were among those targeted by the Nazis in their extermination attempts.

While Israeli society in general is known to be tolerant of gays and lesbians, the Schechter Institute seemed determined to maintain its policy. JTS officially changed its policy concerning the admission of gays and lesbians following a vote in December 2006 by the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.

A seminary statement said the decision comes following a “long process”:

The Schechter Rabbinical Seminary views the serious process leading to this decision as an example of confronting social dilemmas within the framework of tradition and halachah, or Jewish law, Hanan Alexander, chair of the seminary’s Board of Trustees, said in the statement. “This decision highlights the institution’s commitment to uphold halachah in a pluralist and changing world.

Students are ordained by a beit din, or rabbinical court, made up of three members of the Rabbinic Advisory Committee of the seminary, all of whom are members of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Masorti/Conservative movement. The beit din members are chosen by the candidate and subject to the approval of the seminary’s dean. They have different opinions regarding the ordination of gay and lesbian students, according to the seminary.

This unique mechanism is an expression of halachic pluralism, one of the founding principles of SRS, the seminary said in its statement. The Seminary is a religious institution of the Masorti/Conservative Movement, bound by Halacha, whose inclusive approach allows for a variety of Halachic opinions.

The Conservative Movement’s Seminario in South America still maintains a policy barring affirmed gays and lesbians from matriculating in its rabbinic ordination program.

While it is odd that it took an additional five years from the time JTS opened its doors, I’m glad to see the Schechter Institute finally following suit.

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

Happy Birthday Adam Sandler

Happy Birthday to Adam Sandler, who turns 45 today. Sandler doesn’t always get the respect he should as a comedian, actor and writer but I’ve always been a fan. I recently watched “Funny People” for the second time and was left impressed with Sandler’s range as an actor. Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, Waterboy and Big Daddy remain my go-to movies when some mindless humor is in order.

I had a chance to meet Adam Sandler in November, 1999 when he was filming “Little Nicky” on the Manhattan streets just around the corner from my apartment. Walking from 110th Street and Broadway up to the Jewish Theological Seminary at 122nd Street for morning minyan on a brisk November morning at 7:00 AM I did a double-take when I spotted Adam standing by himself on 112th Street trying to stay warm. We started talking. He told me about his brother who studied in a traditional yeshiva. After talking for about twenty minutes, he invited me to come back around lunch time to watch him shoot the movie.

There was a crowd of people trying to watch the filming when I returned to the set around noon with my rabbinical school classmate. Sandler recognized me and told his assistant to let us move up to the front so we could have a good view of the action. Over the next couple days I had the chance to be on a movie set (my first time) and shmooze with Adam Sandler between takes. On his final day of filming I presented him with a suede yarmulke with the Jewish Theological Seminary logo on it and we took a photo together.

For those who think that Adam Sandler’s only talent is making movies with sophomoric humor and silly voices, you should watch “Spanglish,” “Funny People” and “Reign Over Me.” Not only has he made some very good movies, he’s also educated people about Hanukkah with his series of Hanukkah songs and the animation “Eight Crazy Nights.” And not only did he try to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with his humus-loving Zohan character, he donated 400 PlayStations to Israeli children whose homes were damaged in rocket attacks.

Happy Birthday Adam Sandler!

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

My Teacher Rabbi Burt Visotzky Does Dinner with President Barack Obama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Motherhood and the Rabbinate: A Male Rabbi Responds

When we hear the words of the Torah being read this Shabbat morning, we’ll learn about a group of women who had a mutual goal and succeeded.

A man named Tzelafchad died without having any sons and the laws of inheritance in the Torah only recognized male heirs, making no provision for a deceased father’s land to be claimed by his female descendants. However, Tzelafchad’s daughters, Machlah, Noah, Chaglah, Milkah and Tirtzah, refused to reconcile themselves to this fact and petitioned Moses to grant them their father’s estate. Moses brought their claim to God, who responded: “The daughters of Tzelafchad speak right: thou shalt surely give them a possession of an inheritance among their father’s brethren; and thou shalt cause the inheritance of their father to pass unto them. And thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel, saying: If a man die, and have no son, then ye shall cause his inheritance to pass unto his daughter.”

These five women didn’t let the fact that they were women get in the way of changing history. And neither did the women who broke the gender barrier in the rabbinate. Prior to June 3, 1972, no woman had ever been ordained as a rabbi in the United States. On that date, Sally Priesand became the first woman rabbi in North America. The first Conservative rabbi wouldn’t be ordained for another eleven years when Rabbi Amy Eilberg graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

It is appropriate that we learn about the courageous daughters of Tzelafchad this week following an op-ed in the Forward written by a female rabbinical student from the Jewish Theological Seminary who argues that motherhood and the rabbinate don’t mix well. Chasya-Uriel Steinbauer, the mother of an infant daughter, is on leave from the Seminary while she stays at home to care for her daughter. Somehow she found the time (probably while her baby was napping) to post on the Forward’s Sisterhood blog that mothers who are practicing rabbis are just another example of the “Super Mom-syndrome now cloaked as the Super Ima-Rabbi syndrome.”

Well, I couldn’t disagree more. Maybe Chasya-Uriel Steinbauer is not able to balance motherhood with the life of a rabbinical student, but I have certainly witnessed many women who were able to strike this balance — and impressively so.

I remember my first day of rabbinical school orientation like it was yesterday. We sat around a conference room table introducing ourselves. Many of us were right out of college. Some were single, while others were either engaged or newly married. But there were also several older students in my rabbinical school class. I remember Paula Mack Drill introducing herself in her warm way by telling us that first and foremost she is the mother of four children ages nine to two-years-old. And she wasn’t the only woman in our class who would spend the next six years raising a family and fulfilling the necessary credits to graduate and become a rabbi. During rabbinical school, many of my female classmates became mothers for the first time (or for the second or third time). And many of the men (myself included) became fathers for the first time.

Was it challenging to be both a mommy (or daddy) and still manage to attend classes, study in the beit midrash, take exams and manage a part-time job? Of course it was. Just like it is a challenge to balance motherhood with medical school or law school or any other graduate school. But it can be done and it can be done without forsaking the children.

The experience of coupling motherhood with a career is something women fought for in the last century. The opening of the doors to women in the rabbinate was very much a result of the Women’s Liberation Movement. And Judaism is the better for it. This past Mother’s Day I wrote an article for JTA in praise of women rabbis. I wrote this because my rabbinate and my Jewish experience have only been enhanced by the presence of women rabbis.

From among my rabbinical school class alone, I’ve seen one of my female classmates go on to become an entrepreneur, founding a new congregation and being recognized as one of Newsweek Magazine’s top congregational rabbis. I saw another female classmate go on to become one of the highest ranking chaplains in the Navy. I saw other female classmates build small synagogues into larger, thriving communities. And these are only the women with whom I was ordained. Look around the Jewish world and you’ll see hundreds of women successfully raising their children while also educating, counseling, writing, leading organizations and preaching.

Chasya-Uriel Steinbauer urges, “I want us to question why we allow our lives to be set up in such ways where we feel that they have no choice but to work or attend school and thus leave our babies in the care of others.” You definitely have a choice. But many women in the 21st century are choosing to do the motherhood thing along with being an executive or a graduate student or a rabbi. It can be done and it can be done gracefully without any risk to the children.

I’m actually glad that Steinbauer wrote this because it gives us a chance to praise the women who balance motherhood with their careers. No one says these women have to do it alone. Help comes from devoted spouses, caring parents serving as loving grandparents, and talented nannies. Back in rabbinical school, there were many days when a baby would join us in class. Sometimes it was a mommy who brought the baby and sometimes it was a daddy. Not only did we not mind having a baby or two in class, we actually liked it. It was a testament that we didn’t have to check our parenthood responsibilities at the door of the Seminary. It is really no different than a rabbi who sits on the bimah (pulpit) with her baby. It is a scene that might have been odd a few decades ago, but today it is commonplace.

One rabbi who prides herself on also being a mother is Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, who blogs at Ima On (and Off) the Bima. I thought her response to Chasya-Uriel Steinbauer was perfect. Reminding everyone that she is an ima (mother) both on and off the bimah, she wrote:

I am both a mother and a rabbi. Some days I’m more ima. Some days I’m more bima. (See blog title.) Some days, I’m trying to make it all work. But I don’t think I’m doing it wrong. I just know that I’m doing it. I’ve created four wonderful little people and my husband and I delight in their growth of body and spirit. We definitely juggle, we definitely argue over who goes where and when.

I hope Chasya-Uriel Steinbauer returns to rabbinical school soon. I’m sure she’ll become a talented rabbi while being a nurturing and devoted mother too. These are not mutually exclusive roles in life. It might just take her a few years to figure that out.

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

JTS Chef Joe Landa Wins on Food Network’s "Chopped!"

I learned a lot in rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary. I also managed to eat pretty well too. Right before I began my six-year tenure at the Seminary, a new company took over the food management operations in the cafeteria. From what I understand, Flik Independent Schools Dining took it up a notch. Rich Costas and his team had never run a kosher kitchen before, but they learned quickly how to serve three delicious meals a day and cater fancy events while adhering to the kosher laws.

The scrumptious food served at JTS might have been a well kept secret until last night. The Seminary’s executive chef Joe Landa was a big winner on the Food Network’s cooking competition show “Chopped!” Chef Joe’s been establishing his reputation as a creative culinary innovator for almost a quarter century.

Before becoming a champion on “Chopped!”, Chef Joe won the 2010 “Whole Grains Council” national recipe contest. He’s a certified personal fitness instructor with a passion for healthy living, physical endurance, and balanced nutrition. Chef Joe came to JTS in 2003 after many years as a chef at various restaurants in New York City.

As executive chef at JTS, Chef Joe helps serve about 600 customers per day. He’s responsible for the creative choices in the cafeteria line for three meals a day, plus all the catering requests. In addition to preparing meals for Seminary functions, Chef Joe will also cater weddings, conventions, Shabbat and holiday meals, and other events at the Seminary.

On last night’s episode of “Chopped!”, host Ted Allen challenged Chef Joe and three other chefs to create a three-course meal by using flour tortillas, English cucumbers, fresh fava beans and pickled beef tongue for the Appetizer round; pork rinds, galangal, purple kohlrabi and rabbit legs and thighs for the Entrée round; and lambe, chickpea flour, Asian pears, rose water syrup for the Dessert round. These were clearly not the typical kosher meals that Chef Joe is used to cooking up at the Seminary. That could be the reason he didn’t identify where he works; only stating that he’s an executive chef in Manhattan.

Chef Joe took home the $10,000 prize beating out the stiff competition made up of a sous chef at NYU Medical Center, a restaurateur in Brooklyn, and a restaurateur from Gramercy Park. While I’m not a foodie or a regular Food Network viewer (this was actually my first time watching anything on the Food Network), I found this show to be exhilarating. I can’t wait for the next time I’m in NYC to stop by the Seminary and sample some delicious offerings from Champion Chef Joe Landa. Congratulations Joe… even if it was far from kosher, you made the Seminary proud!

UPDATE: For those concerned about the overtly non-kosher fare that Chef Joe had to cook on the TV show, don’t worry because he was able to recreate a kosher version of that meal for cafeteria patrons of the Jewish Theological Seminary this past Wednesday. Here’s the announcement that went out to the Seminary community:

“Join our own “Chopped” champion, Chef Joe Landa, for his award winning menu selection as featured on his recent TV appearance on the Food Network. Chef Joe will be making a kosher version of his Chipotle and balsamic glazed pickled beef tongue tostada with ginger fava bean mash and English cucumber salsa. Come down to the JTS Dining Hall on Wednesday, June 29th at lunchtime!”

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

Mitch Albom Receives Honorary Degree from JTS

Mitch Albom received a Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa, from my alma mater the Jewish Theological Seminary last Thursday. This was not Mitch’s first time at JTS, as he has been a guest speaker there several times in the past.

I grew up in Metro Detroit reading Mitch Albom’s columns in the sports section of the Detroit Free Press. Before going to school each day, from middle school through high school, I would check the daily box scores to see how our local Detroit teams had faired the night before and read Mitch’s insightful take on the various subjects of the Detroit sports scene. In high school and college I would listen to Mitch’s radio show on 760 AM each weekday. At home, my library contains a section with every single book that Mitch Albom has ever written, all personally inscribed.

I’ve enjoyed reading The Live Albom volumes — his compilation books of his Free Press columns as well as his wonderful biographies on such notable sports personalities in Detroit as Bo Schembechler and the Fab Five. His heartwarming and spiritual books, For One More Day, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, and Have a Little Faith have all been resources for me in sermons, eulogies, and introductions to Yizkor (the memorial service on Jewish holidays). And of course, his magnum opus Tuesdays With Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson has been an inspiration for me since I first picked it up the day it was first published in 1997.

Mitch Albom is very deserving of this honorary degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary and I’m especially proud since it was awarded by an institution that is near and dear to my heart. Mitch has truly practiced tikkun olam (helping to heal our fractured world) through his tireless work on behalf of Detroit’s poor. I was uplifted and inspired when I attended his event at the Fox Theater a couple years ago to benefit the I  Am My Brother’s Keeper Ministry, a homeless shelter in Detroit. Mitch has raised an impressive amount of money through his Hole in the Roof Foundation and has traveled to Haiti with his Schechter Day School classmate Rabbi David Wolpe.

Mitch Albom has more talent in his pinky finger than most people could even dream of having. He’s turned his books into movies and stage productions. He’s an accomplished playwright whose current production about Ernie Harwell is on stage in Detroit. In one day, I read his Free Press column, listen to him on the radio, and then see him on TV as an ESPN commentator. And somehow, in that same day Mitch finds the time to raise money to benefit the neediest among us. He might not be the most religious guy, but he has a tremendous amount of faith. He doesn’t have a reputation of being a particularly warm guy on the outside, but there’s no question about how warmhearted this guy is.

Congratulations to Dr. Mitch Albom on his honorary degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

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

Rabbi Joyce Newmark Returns to Jeopardy to Defend her Title

Rabbi Joyce Newmark of Teaneck, NJ won $29,200 in her first appearance on the television game show “Jeopardy!” last night. She returned to defend her title tonight, but came up empty.

She was welcomed back onto the show by host Alex Trebek who mentioned that she won the night before on the twentieth anniversary of her ordination as a rabbi from the Jewish Theological Seminary. He also asked her how long there have been female rabbis and if it’s difficult to be one. Newmark answered the question very well, basically explaining to Trebek that she’s never been any other kind of rabbi other than a female one.

Here are two video clips from Rabbi Joyce Newmark’s second appearance on “Jeopardy!”.

JTA Article

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

Raise Your Glass – The Maccabeats Purim Song

This year is a leap year on the Jewish calendar so there is a second month of Adar. The fun and silly holiday of Purim occurs this month and that means the levity has begun. Two funny videos for Purim are already attracting quite a bit of attention on YouTube.

The Yeshiva University a capella group The Maccabeats have followed their smash hit for Hanukkah with a Purim version of Pink’s “Raise Your Glass.” It might not go viral like “Candlelight” did (4.725 million views and counting), but it’s fun nevertheless.

Yael Buechler, a very creative senior student in the rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, created a video parody of Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie starring the Seminary’s Chancellor Arnie Eisen (“Ernie”) and Professor Burt Visotzsky (“Bert”). Yael told me that students have joked about Burt as “Bert” and Arnie as “Ernie” for a number of years (probably for as long as Eisen has been chancellor). Since Buechler’s recent video creations have become very popular within the JTS community, she explained that the Chancellor and Rabbi Visotzky were eager to be in this latest hit. She wrote the script based on a Bert and Ernie scene and substituted the Purim pastry hamantaschen for pizza. As you can see, Eisen and Visotzky did some ad libbing as well. Even though I took a few courses with Prof. Visotzky, I was not aware of his dead-on Bert impersonation. It’s great to see these academics be such good sports for the sake of some Purim fun.


Jacob Richman has posted 68 Purim videos on his website. Check it out.

More Purim fun to come!

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

A Tribute to My Teachers

As the first decade of the new millennium comes to a close, I thought I would pay tribute to the teachers who have influenced me most during these ten formative years of my life. Like many, I feel nostalgic on New Year’s Eve as another year becomes history, and I feel especially nostalgic as the final hours of this decade pass.

I have learned a great deal from these teachers. Some have taught me in a classroom setting and some have provided valuable insight in a less formal way. Some of these teachers gave me experiential opportunities and others have guided me toward exciting endeavors and encouraged me to think differently. Friedrich Nietzsche said, “One repays a teacher badly if one only remains a pupil.” I hope that in my current and future pursuits in the field of Jewish education and beyond I will be able to repay these influential teachers.

RABBI DANNY NEVINS – Every rabbi needs a rabbi. Danny came to Adat Shalom Synagogue, my hometown congregation, as the young junior rabbi in the summer of 1994 as I was preparing to leave for college. However, he played a pivotal role in my decision to become a rabbi and proved immensely helpful to me in the past decade. Whether for spiritual guidance, to answer a quick question, or to discuss challenging matters of Jewish law, Danny has always been there for me.

RABBI BILL LEBEAU – During my first year of rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I immediately regarded the school’s dean, Rabbi Lebeau, as a wise sage who was a great listener and always had practical advice. At the conclusion of that year, he announced that he was stepping down as the dean to focus on fundraising for the Seminary. I couldn’t have been more disappointed. However, a couple years later he returned to the deanship and was a guiding light as I completed school and entered “the real world.”

RABBI NEIL GILLMAN – The first time I thought seriously about theology was in the late 1990s as I prepared to apply to rabbinical school and wrote my admission essays about what I believed. One individual, through his writing and his courses, has helped me formulate and make better sense of my theology. Not only did Neil Gillman teach me about theology, he also helped me feel completely comfortable teaching the subject. Whether I’m teaching “Jewish Theology” to adults or teens, I draw on what I learned from his classes.

RABBI DAVID KRAEMER – Talmud study became fun for me the first time I sat in David Kraemer’s class. Now the librarian of JTS, he drew me in to his discussions by telling stories to complement the Talmud text. His deep knowledge of the history of eating in the Jewish tradition and the foundation of the kosher laws has been invaluable to me as I launched my own kosher certification agency.

RABBI BURTON VISOTZKY – It’s been said that to truly understand the world of midrash, one needs a teacher who can unlock the door to this collection of rabbinic literature. For me, the gatekeeper was Burt Visotzky. During my final years of rabbinical school, he encouraged me to explore the text deeper and write my own midrashim. In these exercises I discovered my love of writing and commenting homiletically on the richness of biblical narrative.

RABBI ALAN SILVERSTEIN – I learned to be a congregational rabbi while living in Caldwell, New Jersey and serving an internship under the tutelage of Rabbi Silverstein. Regarded as one of the most successful congregational rabbis in the Conservative Movement, he gave me countless opportunities to find my voice, teach, and counsel in this amazing community. I will forever be indebted for these opportunities.

MICHAEL BROOKS – While I had planned to serve as a congregational rabbi after being ordained, the best job opportunity presented itself in Michigan at the University of Michigan Hillel Foundation in Ann Arbor. Michael Brooks, the executive director, taught me the ins and outs of working with Jewish college students. My first year at the Hillel was Michael’s 25th as the director and his experience and knowledge was legendary. Leaving important articles on my desk for me to read was a daily occurrence, as was forcing me to think differently on a whole host of subjects. Michael’s perspective and connections were essential in my first “real world” job.

RABBI JOEL ROTH – I joke that Rabbi Roth is my “kosher hotline.” As a Talmud scholar, his courses on Jewish law were captivating. As a kosher expert, he has been a beacon for me as a kosher supervisor. When I was hired by Tamarack Camps to serve as the year-round rabbi and kosher supervisor, I returned to the Seminary for one-on-one training from him and I am certain I couldn’t work in the field of kosher certification without his guidance.

RABBI HAYIM HERRING – Hayim has found a niche as sort of a business coach for rabbis. The fact remains that the “rabbi as corporate executive” training does not exist in the rabbinical schools. Hayim created necessary programs to train rabbis as executives through the STAR Foundation, which ceased operations recently. Hayim has motivated me to focus on the entrepreneurial aspects of my rabbinate. He is a leading thinker when it comes to technology and our conversations have always been inspiring and stimulating.

RABBI IRWIN KULA – Irwin is my guru. Every time I read one of his articles, I find myself highlighting each word and shaking my head affirmatively. More than any rabbi today, Irwin gets it. I first worked with him during the first months of this past decade when I served an internship at Clal in New York City. So, it’s only appropriate that I finished this decade in the same office learning at his feet. Irwin, together with Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, has taken the organization that Rabbi Yitz Greenberg founded into several new directions and spread his wisdom wide into the global marketplace of ideas. Along with my colleague Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, Irwin and Brad created a dynamic fellowship for rabbis called “Rabbis Without Borders.” Participating in this new initiative was nothing less than life-changing. As the borders disappear in the global Jewish community of the 21st century, Irwin has inspired me to think about my rabbinate and my contributions to the Jewish people in new and creative ways. He has energized me to focus on the role of technology and social media in Jewish life, and invigorated me to write more. Our private conversations have been true blessings. Irwin is one of the most charismatic leaders in religion today and I am deeply honored to learn from him.

It has been a wonderful decade for me. One in which I have become a rabbi and a father. One in which I have worked passionately to contribute to society and the Jewish world. I pray that I will continue to be inspired by wonderful teachers in the future, and that I will come to be regarded as an inspirational teacher for others — lighting the sparks for students just as my teachers have lit sparks for me.

I wish everyone a happy and healthy new decade.

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