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Richard Dreyfuss as Abraham Joshua Heschel

Here’s my latest post on the “Rabbi J in the D” blog at Community Next

One of my favorite movies as a kid was 1987′s “Stakeout” starring Richard Dreyfuss and Emilio Estevez. Watching the movie on VHS (remember those?) years later as a college student at around the same time I was discovering the writings of the Jewish theologian and civil rights activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, I don’t recall ever thinking to myself, “You know, that Richard Dreyfuss is so good at playing Detective Chris Lecce in “Stakeout,” he’d do a fine job playing Heschel too.”

But, Dreyfuss has actually gotten rave reviews playing Rabbi Heschel in “Imagining Heschel” at the Cherry Lane Theater in New York. This, of course, isn’t the first time the actor played a teacher. After all, he played music teacher Mr. Glenn Holland in the 1995 film “Mr. Holland’s Opus.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
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The Adin Steinsaltz Talmud and the Global Day of Learning

In 1994, following the death of my maternal grandfather, David Gudes, I received his entire library of Jewish books. In his collection were all of the volumes of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s translation of the Talmud into English that had been published thus far. These beautiful light-yellow volumes prompted me to start learning Talmud as a college freshman. At first, I would sit in my dorm room by myself and try to make sense of the Aramaic with the assistance of Steinsaltz’s translation. Then I began learning with my friend and first chavruta (study partner) PJ Cherrin in the library of the campus Hillel. Those Steinsaltz volumes proved helpful as I began to navigate my way through the “Sea of Talmud.”

In rabbinical school, at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Steinsaltz English edition was banned from use because it was considered to be a crutch for those who were too challenged by the puzzling Aramaic of the text. In other, more traditional, circles Steinsaltz was shunned because he altered some of the long-standing conventions when he placed his commentary in the space traditionally reserved for the commentator Rashi and changed the traditional layout and pagination in his translation.

While I wasn’t allowed to use my grandfather’s Talmud set with Steinsaltz’s English translation, I often referred to the Steinsaltz translation of the Talmud into understandable Hebrew. The addition of vowels, punctuation and a contemporary commentary made Talmud study much more accessible for me and for many thousands of other students.

Steinsaltz’s undertaking is coming to an end with his publication of the final remaining Tractate (Chulin) into the more manageable Hebrew (his English translation ended after only a dozen or so volumes were complete). In celebration of this milestone, Rabbi Steinsaltz has declared this Sunday to be a “Global Day of Jewish Learning” to raise awareness about the joys and spiritual reward of Jewish study. Through Rabbi Steinsaltz’s organization, The Aleph Society, and with the leadership of Detroit native Rachel Weiss Berger, a website has been set up for individuals to locate resources for self learning.

I am excited to be one of the local teachers who will lead a session on the “Global Day of Jewish Learning.” My session will explore the theme of water as it runs through Jewish texts and tradition. Water is an appropriate subject for a day when the world celebrates the work of a man who helped the Jewish people navigate through the Sea of Talmud.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
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Avot: My Teachers

Yesterday was Father’s Day. It was my 7th Father’s Day as a Dad. I love Father’s Day because it’s a chance to honor fathers and to appreciate fatherhood.

Yesterday, in addition to thinking about my father and father-in-law who have both been influential teachers in my life, I also took some time to consider the role of my teachers as father figures.

Last month, while in New York City, I spent an afternoon honoring the memory of two of my teachers. I went to the Beit Midrash at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), where I spent six years learning the ancient texts of the Jewish people. There, a gathering of my teachers, classmates, and current rabbinical students paid tribute to Rabbi Morris Shapiro, of blessed memory. Rabbi Shapiro, ordained by Yeshivat Chochmei Lublin, spent many years as a sage consultant in the Beit Midrash where he was available to help students struggling over a passage of Talmud text. This was the 30-day anniversary of his recent death marking the end of the shloshim period and it was a fitting learning session in his honor. Sitting there with my own rabbi — Danny Nevins — and two of my classmates — Josh Cahan and Rachel Ain — I couldn’t help but to think of all the wisdom that Rabbi Shapiro had passed from the Old Country to the rabbis of tomorrow.

From the Seminary, I ventured downtown to an apartment across the street from the Empire State Building. This apartment — the home of my beloved college professor Jonas Zoninsein, of blessed memory — was now a shivah home where his family, friends and colleagues gathered to reminisce about his life. Professor Zoninsein was my teacher at James Madison College at Michigan State. A scholar of Latin American economics, he taught with devotion to the subject and a passion for education. I had the merit of sharing some stories from my undergraduate experience in his classroom with his daughter Manuela.

Both of these teachers were so passionate about their teaching that they took on a fatherly role to their students.

And then yesterday morning, on Father’s Day, I received word that a project I created for one of the many classes I took with Rabbi Neil Gillman at JTS was included in a website in his honor. “Beit Nachum” was created to honor Rabbi Gillman, a theologian who taught at JTS for decades. As the website states, “Just as the students of Hillel and the students of Shammai disseminated and built upon the Torah of their teachers as Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, we honor and build upon the Torah of our teacher as Beit Nachum. We have learned, through Rabbi Gillman’s example, that the words of the living God can inspire lifetime of intellectual integrity, theological courage and humility.”

During my time at the Seminary, Rabbi Gillman played a very father-like role to me and many other students. He was kind and gracious, but wasn’t afraid to let a student know when they possessed the potential to do better. I decided to submit a creative midrash on Akeidat Yitzchak (The Binding of Isaac) for inclusion on the Beit Nachum website. It is the story of this biblical event as told by Isaac as a guest on the Jerry Springer Show. It is evidence of the freedom that Rabbi Gillman gave his students to be creative and to think and write out-of-the-box.

Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there, and to all of my teachers… Thank you.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
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Honorable Menschen: Michigan’s Levin Brothers

While living in New Jersey during rabbinical school, I attended a benefit dinner for the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in which Senator Jon Corzine was honored.  Prior to the event, questions were raised as to whether it was wise of JTS to honor a politician while he was serving in office. Honoring Corzine, the former Goldman Sachs Chairman and who after serving as senator became the governor of New Jersey, would bring in a lot of contributions to JTS, but it also upset several donors who saw this as the Seminary engaging in partisan politics.

Now the local region of the Seminary here in Michigan is honoring not one, but two politicians. And yet, there won’t be any objection to this event because of the reputations of the politicians who will be honored. In the Detroit Jewish community, Carl and Sandy Levin have earned their “Favorite Sons” status over a combined sixty-plus years in elected office. The Jewish Theological Seminary will honor the Levin brothers at a brunch on Sunday, April 18, 2010.

The Levin Brothers are making big news today, following yesterday’s decision of House Democrats to make Sandy Levin acting chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Today’s Detroit Free Press reports that Sandy’s “ascension, taken with his younger brother Carl’s chairmanship of the Senate Armed Services Committee, creates what the Christian Science Monitor called ‘one of the most powerful brother acts in Washington since the Kennedys.’ The Office of the House Historian said there have been four instances of brothers serving as chairs of congressional committees at the same time but none since 1881. And there is no precedent for brothers chairing committees as powerful and prestigious as those headed by the Levins.”

A few months ago, PBS aired a documentary about the history of Jewish Detroit in which Sandy and Carl Levin were interviewed together about their beloved neighborhood in the City of Detroit. Their interview was a touching tribute to their upbringing and the city they love. Many described the scene not as two elected officials being interviewed by a documentary filmmaker, but as a couple of local Jewish grandfathers waxing nostalgic about their childhood and the old neighborhood.

I first got a sense of Carl Levin’s character when a good friend of mine worked on his re-election campaign as a fundraiser. I would hear her tell people that she works “with Carl” as opposed to “for Senator Levin.” However, that is precisely what the laid back senator wanted his staff to say. While he’s served in the Senate since 1979, there’s no ego there. Both Carl and Sandy are humble, well-respected men who can be aptly characterized by the term “mensch.” I’ve met both men on several occasions and have found them to be warm and friendly, without a hint of that “Inside-the-Beltway Braggadocio.”

Most people don’t know that in addition to all of his accolades and accomplishments in the Senate, Carl Levin also founded a synagogue. A February 11, 1977 article in the Detroit Jewish News reports that when the former synagogue building of Congregation Mogain Abraham in Detroit was about to be demolished, Carl Levin (Detroit Common Council President at the time) and three others salvaged relics from the 63-year-old building to be incorporated in the new synagogue they formed called Congregation T’chiyah. “When Levin became aware that the former synagogue of Mogain Abraham (now Mt. Olive Baptist Church) was to be demolished as part of the Medical Center Rehabilitation Project, he proposed that the group make a bid to the city, which had purchased the structure, for the interior fixtures… the bid was accepted.”

Years later, Carl Levin was walking in Detroit when he saw a pickup truck drive by with a stained-glass window in the back. He immediately recognized it as one of the windows from the synagogue, which was now a church. Even though, Congregation T’chiyah technically owned that stained-glass window, which had apparently been stolen out of the church, Carl stopped the truck and bought the stained-glass window from the man right there on the spot.

Today, I’m proud to be the part-time rabbi of Congregation T’chiyah; probably the only synagogue in the country to be founded by a U.S. Senator. I’m also honored that Sandy Levin’s family is active in the congregation, continuing the Levin legacy at Congregation T’chiyah that began over thirty-three years ago. I’ll be among the many who will come together next month to honor Sandy and Carl Levin, and to support the Jewish Theological Seminary.

With many politicians today, people seem to just be waiting for a scandal to occur. That is not the case with the Levin Brothers. Through their integrity and decades of hard work, they have actually made strides to give politics a good name.  They are just two nice Jewish boys from Detroit who earned law degrees and set out to make a difference by legislating in Washington in a non-politics-as-usual way.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
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Private Jewish Tutoring

Last weekend at a wedding, I was approached by a lovely couple who were very excited to see me after many years. It took me a moment to recall they were Brian’s parents, but when I did, my excitement matched theirs. Brian was a student in the first class of Hebrew School I ever taught. I got my start as a Jewish educator as a young 18-year-old college freshman in East Lansing, Michigan. I taught the same group of students for three years in a row; from fourth grade through sixth grade.

After Brian finished sixth grade, his parents hired me as a private tutor to continue teaching him Hebrew and to train him for his upcoming bar mitzvah. For a year, I visited Brian at his parent’s home on a weekly basis where we went over his Torah portion, haftorah (selection from the Prophets), and worked on his bar mitzvah speech. Some thirteen years later, I still remember learning about the Nazirite Samson with Brian. I didn’t merely teach him to recite his Torah reading and haftorah; rather, we studied the biblical text with the commentary so that he understood what he was chanting to the congregation.

Brian’s parents shared with me how meaningful that experience had been for their son. As they walked away, I found myself feeling nostalgic about the one-on-one Jewish education I offered Brian, and also about the article I recently read in the New York Jewish Week about private Jewish tutoring.

The NY Jewish Week cover story explained something I quickly discovered upon moving to Manhattan for rabbinical school over a decade ago. Many families choose to hire private tutors in lieu of Hebrew School. Writer Julie Wiener explains:

As seemingly growing numbers of families in New York and other major metropolitan areas eschew Hebrew schools for the convenience and intimacy of private tutors, many in the organized Jewish world — particularly those active in synagogues — worry that tutoring’s individualized approach, part of a larger trend in modern American culture, poses a threat not just to synagogues, but to the very ideals of Jewish community.

The only thing that surprised me about Wiener’s article was that it took this long for the topic to make the headlines. At the Jewish Theological Seminary in the late 90’s, I had quite a side-business with the various private tutoring jobs I amassed. There was an e-mail list sponsored by the Rabbinical School Student Organization (RSSO). Local Manhattan families would post blurbs about their need for a private tutor for their son or daughter who was too busy to attend Hebrew school at the temple or synagogue, had a learning disability that required an individualized approach, didn’t care for the Hebrew School teacher, or didn’t get along with the other kids in Hebrew School. In some cases, the parents didn’t want to join a temple or synagogue, preferring a do-it-yourself approach instead. In other cases, they didn’t want their child to commit to the several hours a week of Hebrew School that was required to become a bar or bat mitzvah because of extracurricular obligations like hockey, soccer, dance, theater, or other tutoring time.

The compensation was great for full-time graduate students in New York City. In most cases, I was paid $80/hour, but tutoring a group of students (i.e., three) was upwards of $125/hour. Many of the jobs were advertised on the e-mail list, but the best tutoring jobs were passed down from graduating rabbinical students to younger rabbinical students.

When my friend and next-door neighbor Mickey Stanger graduated from the Seminary, I inherited several of his students. There was the young boy with ADHD who I tutored weekly for four years. His parents didn’t want to renew their membership at the synagogue and the boy’s learning disability wasn’t handled appropriately by the teachers. In the first couple years, I taught him Hebrew and basic information about Jewish holidays and customs. When he turned twelve, we began to prepare for his bar mitzvah — an intimate Havdallah service that I created specifically for him (do-it-yourself Judaism).

Those four years created a wonderful relationship not only with the young boy, but also with his parents. He never would have learned as much in a structured classroom, but I was able to personalize the lessons to meet his learning needs. Of course, it could be argued that while this family got what they wanted — a personalized bar mitzvah ceremony that perfectly fitted their son’s needs — they did not gain a closer relationship to a synagogue community or a rabbi as they would have with the traditional Hebrew School and bar mitzvah path.

There was also the group of three rowdy boys I tutored weekly around the kitchen table. They would have been thrown out of their Hebrew School classroom each week for their disruptive behavior, but I was able to reach them through various techniques that would have been impossible for a teacher in a classroom. I also tutored a young girl in Hebrew reading. Sitting in her parents’ multi-million dollar brownstone, I became the family’s rabbi often finding myself counseling the parents through their bitter divorce. While I usually found myself walking into vast, beautiful Upper East Side apartments to a team of nannies, maids, and other tutors, it was not just the wealthy who engaged tutors. Some families, as the NY Jewish Week article explains, are either allergic to shul membership or found it was more cost effective to forgo Hebrew School tuition for private tutoring.

JTS Professor Jack Wertheimer is quoted in the NY Jewish Week article. He “wonders how well private programs can socialize young Jews to feel part of a congregation. One of the great advantages of Jewish children being educated in schools is that they are exposed to different types of Jewish role models. They see the rabbi, they see their teachers, they see other adults engaged in Jewish living. The private route limits the exposure of young people.”

In the article, Rabbi Laurie Phillips, director of education at Congregation Habonim, likens Jewish studies tutoring to private sports lessons. “You can learn to play soccer with a tutor, but it’s a different experience if you’re learning one-on-one versus being part of a soccer team. You’ll know how to play, but won’t know how to be part of a team.” I think that’s a fair assessment when it comes to tutoring in place of Hebrew School. Unfortunately, because of time constraints there aren’t many families who are supplementing Hebrew School with tutors. It’s usually an all-or-nothing proposition.

Along with the argument that these children are missing out on the community experience when they are only privately tutored, there is also the case of synagogue membership hurting. Many families join congregations so that their children can attend Hebrew School and become bar or bat mitzvah. When Jewish families in the metropolitan areas opt for private tutoring instead of Hebrew School, it also means they’re going the do-it-yourself Judaism route as well and forsaking synagogue membership. That clearly hurts the synagogues.

Nevertheless, it appears that the private Jewish tutoring business is thriving. Some educators have incorporated and run large tutoring businesses for groups and individuals who opt out of the Hebrew School track. Rabbi Reuben Modek’s website for his Hebrew Learning Circles program offers private bar and bat mitzvah preparation, as well as cultural and religious education. As if that alone won’t infuriate local pulpit rabbis, Modek also advertises that he’ll officiate at life-cycle events taking full advantage of the craving for do-it-yourself Judaism.

It’s only a matter of time before this coastal and big city trend of private tutoring for those who opt out of Hebrew School makes its way to the “heartland” Jewish communities. Already, in the Metro Detroit area, one former synagogue bar/bat mitzvah tutor has begun advertising in the Detroit Jewish News that he can be hired for private tutoring for those not wishing to attend Hebrew School. Yes, this hurts synagogues, but ultimately let’s hope it will make Hebrew Schools improve. Competition often does just that.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
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Basterds at the Seminary

JTA writer Ami Eden began his blog post about the showing of Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” at the Jewish Theological Seminary as follows:

There are many wonderful things to say about the Jewish Theological Seminary, but let’s face it — it’s not exactly where all the hipsters meet. Honestly, how many times do you find yourself saying: I’m going to a really cool event at JTS tonight.

Important. Interesting. I’ll even give you provocative (sometimes). But, cool?

Well, to be fair, I guess I also wouldn’t characterize JTS as the hippest place in Manhattan. Sure, the six years I spent there in rabbinical school were some of the best and most exciting years of my life, but “cool” programs were not the Seminary’s forte. Recently, times have been tough on JTS with harsh financial woes, budget cuts, and the downsizing of its faculty and staff. They have even decided to close the Seminary on Fridays to save money. I do give Arnie Eisen, the new chancellor, a lot of credit for trying to turn things around and improve the image of JTS. Although, some might do a double-take at the recent programs the Seminary has hosted.

First, there was the event a couple months ago hosted by Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Model Esti Ginzburg, and sponsored by Birthright NEXT and the Council of Young Jewish Presidents. The party for young Jewish New Yorkers was described as “an evening of fashion and passion.” However, having JTS (the academic center of Conservative Judaism) sponsor a party hosted by a bikini model didn’t sit well with many of my female rabbinic colleagues.

Rabbi Joanna Samuels wrote in the Forward, “An institution that trains clergy should probably stay away from events fronted by swimsuit models. People who learn, teach, and advocate for the highest values of our tradition are not going to increase Judaism’s appeal – or their own – through forcing an association with low-brow celebrity culture. The religious leaders who chase after celebrities in the name of kiruv -lo and behold! -often turn out to be using their Torah-for-the-masses public face as a screen for their own narcissism or social climbing.”

Well, I’m not sure the event demanded that level of criticism, but I too found it odd that JTS would host such an event. Hopefully, it achieved its mission of getting hundreds of professional, active, vibrant, young Jews to a party in which they could network (network, by the way, means date and then get married whereby they will produce Jewish offspring to repopulate the Jewish community).

The next event the Seminary produced could also be described as cool and controversial, although in a different way. When I received an e-mail publicizing the screening of Quentin Tarantino’s film Inglourious Basterds, I immediately recognized it as the Seminary trying something new and different. When I read that Tarantino himself would attend the event, I booked a flight to NYC. I didn’t want to pass up a chance to watch a Tarantino film with Tarantino. I’ve been a big fan of the filmmaker’s for years, and Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, and the Kill Bill movies are among my favorites.

So, how does a Jewish academic institution like JTS come to host a screening and panel discussion of this violent, controversial, and profanity-laden film? Here’s the story:

Rabbi Jack Moline, a Conservative rabbi in Alexandria, Virginia did what many rabbis (myself included) did on Yom Kippur this past Fall. He delivered a sermon based on the Holocaust film everyone was talking about — Inglourious Basterds. Moline tells his congregation that this is, in some twisted way, a feel good Holocaust movie for us Jews. He explains that it is cathartic to view the film, in which the Nazis die horrific deaths, as a revenge fantasy. His sentiments were not much different than the sentiments of many rabbis, including Rabbi Irwin Kula. In his articulate review of the film on the Huffington Post, Kula concluded, “Thank you, Quentin Tarantino. You have reminded us, whether you intended to or not, that we are never as powerful as our greatest fantasies and never as powerless as our worst nightmares.”

So, Jack Moline’s sermon makes its way to Lawrence Bender, the producer of the film. Bender also reads Irwin Kula’s review on the Web. He reports about both of them to Quentin Tarantino, who is interested in what rabbis think about the film. Rabbi Marc Wolf, vice-chancellor of JTS, suggests to Chancellor Arnie Eisen that the Seminary show the film and host a panel discussion including Lawrence Bender. Some calls were made, some Jewish connections to Hollywood utilized, and that’s how a Hollywood producer came to find his way to 3080 Broadway to sit on a panel moderated by the Seminary’s chancellor, and including Rabbi Jack Moline and Rabbi Amy Kalmanofsky (a biblical scholar and self-proclaimed lover of gory films).

Following the 2 1/2 hour film, shown in Feinberg Auditorium on a large, rented HD screen with dynamic stereo sound, Bender announced to the dismay of the audience that Mr. Tarantino would not be attending due to a sore throat. While I was certainly disappointed that I traveled to NYC to see and hear Tarantino, the panel discussion (titled: “Jewish Persecution and the Fantasy of Revenge”) was very interesting nevertheless. It began with Chancellor Eisen reading from Irwin Kula’s impressions of the film (the crowd was obviously taken aback when Eisen didn’t censor himself in reading Kula’s words which included a profanity or two). Kalmanofsky then gave an exciting perspective on why she loved the film so much and had no problem with the violence or the revenge cast upon the Nazis. Moline said much of what he had spoken in his Kol Nidrei address, and explained that he returned to the pulpit the next morning on Yom Kippur day to give a different take on Holocaust memory and the respect deserved by the victims. All agreed that after so many Holocaust films had been produced, this one offers a much different take. And one that was a breath of fresh air.

Lawrence Bender spoke about traveling to Israel and Munich with Tarantino to show the film to audiences there. Everyone laughed when he recounted the story of his sitting down to lunch with the actor who played Hitler. The actor was in full makeup and sat alone during the lunch break. Bender recalled that he sort of felt badly for the guy and joined him. Perhaps, the highlight of the panel discussion was Lawrence Bender’s own father, who sat in the audience behind me and kept offering his own assessment of the film’s message (see video clip below).

All in all, it was a much different JTS-sponsored program than I remember attending as a student at the Seminary. Things have certainly changed at JTS and I’m glad the administration is trying new things. Chatting with Marc Wolf earlier that day, he dropped a hint about what could be his next big production at JTS when he asked if I’d seen the Coen Brother’s new film “A Serious Man.” “Wouldn’t it be interesting to hear them talk about that film here?” he asked.

Here’s a video clip of Lawrence Bender and Arnie Eisen talking about Inglourious Basterds:

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

Sometimes newspaper editors have to admit they got it wrong — or that their words were not clear enough and led to misunderstanding. Such was the case when Andrew Silow Carroll (editor-in-chief of the New Jersey Jewish News) wrote about Ruth Messinger’s speech to graduates of the Jewish Theological Seminary this past May.

Messinger (right) is the president of the American Jewish World Service and delivered an amazing commencement address at JTS, which is available as an audio file on the website. I first met Ruth Messinger during my final year of rabbinical studies at JTS when I invited her to speak to my fellow rabbinical students as part of a program I created called “Visions of the Jewish Future.” As president of the rabbinical school’s student organization I thought it would be beneficial to hear from some visionaries in the American Jewish community from outside of the Seminary’s gates.

Silow-Carroll wrote about Messinger’s speech in his paper, but Messinger wasn’t thrilled with the way he characterized it. His column was mostly complimentary, but he suggested that she had gone too far in favoring non-Jewish causes over challenges closer to home.

Upon reading the column, Messinger was hurt and requested a face-to-face meeting with Silow-Carroll in which she explained the many Jewish projects at AJWS and touted the new Web resource, an on-line compendium of rabbinic and contemporary texts on social justice. In my opinion, she really didn’t need to defend the work of her organization in this way. She should have merely mentioned the humanitarian work AJWS provides to the developing world and explained to Silow-Carroll that this is a very Jewish act.

In a follow-up column Silow-Carroll (left) acknowledged that he “hadn’t been aware of the Jewish learning that infused AJWS and should have asked. I also remembered that the Jewish world is big enough and rich enough to work on many levels, in many circles, in service of the local and the global. Those who would narrow the Jewish mission risk losing non-Jewish allies, young Jews interested in this kind of work, and the opportunity to live Jewish responsibility to its fullest.”

At the end of his column, Silow-Carroll explains that his meeting with Ruth Messinger prompted him to deliver a d’var Torah at his newspaper’s board meeting (something that hadn’t been done in a long time). He found a good d’var Torah at

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

You couldn’t go anywhere in the Detroit area this past weekend without hearing people talk about Detroit Pistons owner Bill Davidson. Last Friday night the sad news was about former Pistons coach Chuck Daly announcing he has Pancreatic Cancer. This past Friday night the sad news was that “Mr. D” had died.

Bill Davidson, the owner of Guardian Industries (a worldwide glass manufacturer), bought the Detroit Pistons — a team that hadn’t shown a profit in 17 years — from Fred Zollner in 1974 for approximately six-million dollars (Davidson always said the reported seven-million dollar figure was overstated). The team is currently worth $480 million. He bought the team with his good friend Oscar Feldman, the team’s long time legal counsel (Current Advisory Board Members include Warren Coville, brother-in-law Bud Gerson, sister Dorothy Gerson, Ann Newman and William Wetsman).

Bill Davidson will be remembered as an innovator in the National Basketball Association (NBA). He was the first owner to fly his team on a private jet (“Roundball One”), sit court-side among the fans rather than in a private box or suite, and purchase a state-of-the-art arena (The Palace of Auburn Hills) with all private funds. Mr. Davidson was also the innovator of the co-branding and sponsorship marketing that has become commonplace inside NBA arenas.

Bill Davidson was not your typical billionaire (according to the Forbes list his net worth totals over $5.5 billion). He could have worn expensive custom-made Italian suits, but he preferred warm-up suits and Members-Only jackets.

With Mr. D in a conference room at the Guardian headquarters.

His philanthropic reach was enormous. Personally, I found that wherever I traveled on my own educational and professional journey there was Bill Davidson.

As a young student at Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit, I sat in classrooms that were part of a wing that Mr. Davidson named for his children Ethan and Marla Davidson (this was the first renovation of the school’s Middlebelt campus). I studied for my master’s degree at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. As a Jewish educator I’ve been part of continuing education programs in the Metro Detroit area through TEAM (Teacher Educator Advancement Model), a program of the Hermelin Davidson Center for Congregation Excellence. As a staff member of the University of Michigan Hillel Foundation, I worked in a building that was established because of the generosity of Mr. Davidson and many of his friends.

As a rabbi I have led groups in Israel to the Davidson Center for Exhibition and Virtual Reconstruction in the Jerusalem Archaeological Park, Israel’s most important antiquity site in the Old City of Jerusalem which was funded by Bill Davidson.

As a rabbi in Columbus, Ohio I was a guest at a dinner at the home of Les and Abigail Wexner for Jewish communal leaders to meet the newest class of Wexner Fellows and Davidson Scholars. In 2005, the Wexners launched the philanthropic partnership with William and Karen Davidson through the financial support of Guardian Industries Corp. This new partnership established an annual cohort of 10 Davidson Scholars as part of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship.

The Davidson school at the Seminary is a great example of Mr. Davidson’s philanthropic mission. He shared his thoughts about the vision of the school, but then allowed the school’s leadership to lead. He cared deeply about the students at the Davidson school and was eager to solicit their feedback. In January 2005 he invited the Davidson School’s alumni who live in Metro Detroit to his office at Guardian Industries to have lunch and discuss the school, Jewish education in general, and the future of the Conservative Movement (see blog post). It was evident that he did not merely want to endow a school; he wanted to make a significant difference in Jewish education. At the Davidson School it was not uncommon to hear fellow students refer to Bill Davidson as “Uncle Bill”.

At the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield, I walk by his Jewish Sports Hall of Fame plaque (right) each time I walk into the fitness center to work out. Mr. Davidson was inducted into the Michigan Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in the organization’s first year. He was also inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame in 2008.

Bill Davidson’s philanthropy was immense. The University of Michigan, Jewish Theological Seminary, the Weizmann Institute, and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology all benefited from his great fortune. In 2007, Mr. Davidson donated the second largest gift ever devoted to a Jewish cause with his $75 million donation to Jerusalem’s Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital. The hospital tower will be named for Davidson’s mother, Sarah Wetsman Davidson, a longtime Hadassah volunteer leader.

Regarding the Hadassah gift, Jonathan Aaron (Davidson’s assistant and son-in-law) was quoted in the Forward as saying, “Mr. Davidson doesn’t usually fund brick-and-mortar type projects, but here there was the history and the family ties.”

Detroit Free Press writer Mitch Albom summed up Mr. Davidson’s devotion to the State of Israel in his column yesterday. He wrote, “His love for the Jewish community and the state of Israel was unrivaled. As many tears are shed for his death in Detroit, there are likely that many falling in parts of the Holy Land. Davidson, who sometimes got on his private plane in pajamas and flew overnight to Tel Aviv, walked with the biggest names in that country. And his generosity — there, here and elsewhere — will be missed.”

This past December, Bill and Karen Davidson along with Jon and Mary Aaron invited all local alumni of the Jewish Theological Seminary to their suite at the Palace of Auburn Hills to watch the Detroit Pistons play. It was a very generous way for the Davidson family to acknowledge local rabbis, cantors, and educators. But more importantly, it gave all of us a chance to say “thank you” to this wonderful and kind man in his own home — in his Palace. Bill Davidson was a mentsch.

We’ll miss you Mr. D! Thank you for your immense contributions. Our world is a better place because of your generosity, demeanor, and leadership. May his family be comforted with the blessings of his memory.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Conservative Judaism Jewish JTS Rabbi

Mitzvah Children

There was a time when the Conservative Movement’s law committee (the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards) did not publish its teshuvot (Jewish legal responsa). Twenty-five Conservative rabbis would sit in a room debating and eventually voting on matters of modern Jewish law, and the only people who would be able to read their decisions were other Conservative rabbis.

Today, the teshuvot of the law committee are available for public consumption on the Rabbinical Assembly’s website. So when the CJLS passes what could be considered a controversial paper, one would think there would be much discussion about it. (Certainly no CJLS decision has garnered as much attention as the December 2006 teshuvot concerning homosexuality.)

However, a recent teshuva on a delicate matter co-authored by Rabbi Kassel Abelson and Rabbi Elliot Dorff, and passed by an overwhelming majority of the committee, has received little attention. The paper, titled “Mitzvah Children,” was passed on December 12, 2007 and until today I had not seen any articles published about it.

The essense of Rabbis Abelson and Dorff’s argument is that Jewish couples who are able to reproduce more than two children should do so, and Conservative rabbis should counsel couples in this manner during pre-maritial sessions.

In yesterday’s Jerusalem Post, Rabbi Reuven Hammer (a CJLS member who voted in favor of the teshuva) wrote:

How many children should a Jewish couple have? Although that may seem like a strange question and one that impinges on the private and most intimate life of a couple, it has been addressed by Jewish law in the past and is now the subject of a new teshuva (responsum) issued recently by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the International Rabbinical Assembly of which I am pleased to be a member. Jewish law (Halacha) has dealt with this because the very first mitzva found in the Torah is: “And God blessed them; and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and replenish it…'” (Genesis 1:28). It should be noted that this is not phrased in the Torah as a command in a negative sense and certainly not as a punishment, but as a blessing. To understand how to fulfill this mitzva the sages discussed and debated it. Who is responsible to fulfill it? How many children and of what sex are required? Without going into details, suffice it to say that the traditional answer has been that the mitzva is fulfilled when a couple has had two children, one boy and one girl. The Talmud, however, determined that two children are the minimum, but that Jews should continue to have as many children as they can (B. Yevamot 62b), and Maimonides codified this as law.

Even though the authors of the “Mitzvah Children” paper did a very good job explaining their position while remaining sensitive to those couples unable to reproduce or unable to reproduce beyond one or two children, many will still take exception to rabbis imparting their beliefs on such a personal matter (even though the Torah and Jewish law codes certainly enter this arena).

Rabbis Abelson and Dorff propose that Jewish couples who can have children and do not suffer from specific physical, mental or other problems preventing it should have one or more additional children beyond the two required by Jewish law. These children would be called “mitzvah children” as they would assure future Jewish existence.

Rabbi Elliot Dorff (right), rector of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, has been preaching this idea for many years. During my second year of rabbinical school he was on faculty at the Jewish Theological Seminary and spoke to my class about his views. While he was sensitive with his language, he nevertheless offended several of my classmates — specifically the single women over a certain age — when he argued that Jewish couples should start having children in their early 20’s and have more than just two offspring. As he does in the teshuva, Rabbi Dorff surmised that it was the responsibilty of the Jewish grandparents (as well as the larger Jewish community) to help financially support these children and their Jewish education. His theory was that Jewish women are putting off starting a family until after their prime childbearing years because of their desire to fulfill their academic and professional aspirations first.

The Holocaust also factors into his belief. As he writes in the teshuva:

The world’s Jewish community has not recovered numerically from the devastating losses during the Nazi era. Demographic studies point to a Jewish birthrate that will not maintain the Jewish population in the United States, with serious implications for the future of the American Jewish community, the Jewish people as a whole, and Judaism itself. It is essential that we encourage fertile Jewish couples to have at least two children in compliance with the early Halacha, and one or more additional children, who are mitzva children in the additional sense that they help the Jewish people replace those lost in the Holocaust and maintain our numbers now. Adopting children, converting them to Judaism, if necessary, and raising them as Jews helps in this effort as well.

This all makes good sense to me, but I maintain that the reaction will be mixed among Jewish couples. Everyone cares about the future vitality of the Jewish people, but among modern Jews I believe the response will be that rabbis should stay out of the personal family planning decisions of couples. And for that reason, the “Mitzvah Children” teshuva is a gutsy position paper.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Education Jewish JTS Prayer Spirituality

The Marley Minyan

In Jewish prayer there are some liturgical tunes known as “Mi-Sinai tunes.” Not that they are literally from Mt. Sinai, but the terminology expresses their authenticity. As the Congregation Emunath Israel website explains about the history of chazzanut (Jewish cantorial singing):

The Maharil was the Posek (Halachic authority) for the largest Jewish communities of the day – Worms, Speyer, Mayence, Regensberg, etc. He was upset at the “foreign” elements intruding in the melody of tefillah, and he set out to determine which versions were the true ones (Mi-Sinai or Scarbova). He was able to do that because of the Crusades that brought Jews from all over Europe to seek safety in the Rhineland. He examined the different musical strains, and determined which were authentic. His P’sak (Halachic ruling) – that “Ein L’Shanos” – one may not change the musical Nusach of a community, is standardized as Halacha by the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 619). You can, of course, see that in the Mishneh Brura as well. He was also responsible for standardizing Nusach Ashkenaz in the form that our Siddur takes…

Well, at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Davidson School of Jewish Education (my alma mater), there is now a monthly prayer group that incorporates tunes that are not “Mi-Sinai” but more likely “Mi-Woodstock.” The JTA reports that this prayer group is “part guided meditation, part sing-along, part traditional prayer and part dorm-room musical jam that includes instruments ranging from guitars to didgeridos.”

My feeling is that this is what the Davidson School is all about: Jewish educators praying together, experimenting with tefillah, and finding the spiritual nexus between the Jewish liturgy (psalms, blessings, etc.) and popular music (Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, etc.). For those who would object to the use of musical instruments on Shabbat, rest assured that this “Jam Davening” takes place during the week.

Rabbi Danny NevinsMy teacher Rabbi Danny Nevins (right), who is the new dean of the JTS Rabbinical School, is a great drummer who has been hosting drum circles in his office for rabbinical students at the Seminary. The fusion of jamming and davening will bring more passion to JTS and by extension to Conservative synagogues. As evidenced by the popular Congregation B’nai Jeshurun (B.J.) synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, lively music during prayer draws crowds and helps bring people closer to God.

Jacob Berkman writes in the JTA article:

Jam Davening draws about double the audience of a typical learning minyan, participants say. Now the group is trying to figure out how to bring Jam Davening to a wider audience, first by inviting the broader seminary community into the minyan, then by taking the idea to individual synagogues. This comes at a time when music is rapidly being introduced into Conservative synagogues.

Musical instruments had been excluded from Conservative synagogues on Shabbat partially because of Jewish law and partially as a remembrance of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem nearly 2,000 years ago. But starting in the 1950s, the movement allowed Conservative congregations to decide for themselves whether to use instruments.

Now as the movement debates whether Jews should be praying for the rebuilding of the Temple or just Jerusalem — and about whether or not the use of electricity on Shabbat is banned — the use of instruments has also come under “healthy debate,” according to Rabbi Moshe Edelman, the director of the Committee on Congregational Standards for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Also, members of the Law Committee of the Rabbinical Assembly are working on a paper to address the issue, according to Rabbi Joel Roth, a professor of Talmud and Jewish law and formerly the head of the committee.

What do you think about Jam Davening? Leave your comments below.

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