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

Could Miguel Cotto Be Sued By Orthodox Union Over Kosher Tattoo?

Boxer Miguel Cotto lost to Floyd Mayweather Jr. last night in a unanimous decision in the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. As I’ve written about before on this blog, Miguel Cotto sports a tattoo on his right collarbone that represents the kosher symbol used by the Orthodox Union (a circle containing the letter “U”). Cotto got the well-known and internationally recognized symbol tattooed on him as a gesture for a Jewish friend. Seeing Cotto’s tattoo again last night during his fight made me wonder if there might be any legal ramifications to Cotto sporting a trademarked image in such a public way.

The Union of Orthodox Congregations of American is the largest kosher certification agency in the world with its hekhsher (kosher certification symbol) on over 500,000 products worldwide. The OU, as it is commonly called, has been unrelenting in its protection of its famous trademark. As the most recognized kosher symbol, many food manufacturing businesses (especially in the Far East) think that the OU symbol is a generic kosher code and place it on their product without permission.  As Sue Fishkoff reported in her book Kosher Nation, the OU employs a large legal department whose mission is to locate violations of usage of the OU symbol anywhere in the world, issue a cease and desist order, and file a suit if there’s no compliance.

In the past week I’ve read two articles about ongoing lawsuits filed by the Orthodox Union against companies using the OU symbol. Watching Miguel Cotto dance around the ring last night with his OU tattoo in full sight, I considered if this might be a trademark violation on the radar screen of the OU’s legal department.

The Orthodox Union recently sued a Maine organic dairy for trademark infringement. The OU claims that Maine’s Own Organic Milk Company L3C used the OU trademark without authorization. The Orthodox Union said it initially contacted the dairy about its unauthorized use of the hekhsher in June 2010 and the dairy, known as MOOMilk, applied for certification that month and received an initial inspection, but the dairy never paid the fees and continued to use the kosher symbol on its cartons without authorization. The Orthodox union said it’s harmed by the unauthorized use of the mark, and that kosher consumers are likely to be confused and misled when they see it on MOOMilk’s products.

That’s the most common example of violation against a kosher symbol. But the OU also has to deal with companies using the OU symbol as an innocent mistake. Also this week it was reported that a coffee roastery in New Zealand, Christchurch’s Underground Coffee, is being sued for using a logo that is similar to the OU’s registered trademark. Underground Coffee has been using that logo since 1998, but it only became known to the Orthodox Union recently when Starbucks stores in New Zealand began selling the product.

The OU claims that the coffee’s logo is “likely to deceive or cause confusion” to consumers. Apparently many travellers to New Zealand asked local rabbis if Underground was kosher and others had reported it to the union as an infringement.

There’s no confusion as to Miguel Cotto’s kosher status and it’s entirely possible that the Orthodox Union appreciates the free publicity. But who knows what the OU legal department will think of Cotto’s tattoo, which could be considered an unauthorized use of a registered trademark.

Legal experts: What do you think?

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

Beren Academy Will Play After All

Beren Academy is not the first Jewish day school to find itself in a Shabbat-related predicament at the end of the season. Many Jewish day schools are part of sports leagues with other private schools that are willing to accommodate the Jewish school’s commitment to observing the Jewish Sabbath during the regular season and not scheduling competition during those 25 hours of rest. The problem often occurs during post-season tournament play when a lot of games need to be scheduled in a short period of time.

On Thursday, the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS) backed down and agreed to allow Beren Academy’s semifinal basketball game to be rescheduled rather than face a legal battle. Several of the Orthodox players and their parents filed suit Thursday morning against the Mansfield Independent School District, the host of the state championship, and TAPPS in U.S. District Court alleging a violation of religious freedoms. Instead of contesting the matter in court, TAPPS gave in and amended the schedule to accommodate the yeshiva.

Coach Chris Cole and his Beren Academy players. (Photo: Samantha Steinberg/JTA)

Earlier this week at the Rabbis Without Borders alumni retreat, several of us discussed the Beren Academy case. There are certainly two sides to the case. While I believe in religious tolerance and am always grateful when institutions seek to accommodate individuals observing their religion, I also believe that there are consequences that must be accepted when upholding ones religious beliefs.

In the case of Beren Academy, the school was made aware that the yeshiva’s games would not be rescheduled in tournament play if they fell during Shabbat. This was articulated by the tournament organizers to the school before Beren Academy agreed to register. Furthermore, the Shomer Shabbos (Sabbath observant) boys should understand that when you keep the laws of Shabbat there will be opportunities that will be missed. One would imagine this would be something that their parents and teachers would explain to them. Those of us who observe Shabbat can list the many sporting events, concerts, parties, graduations and other events we have missed as a result of adhering to the sanctity of Shabbat.

I think that it is wonderful that TAPPS and the tournament host agreed to reschedule Beren Academy’s game, but had they held their ground this should have been something the players accepted. There is a common phrase in Yiddish — S’iz shver tzu zein a yid — that means it’s tough to be a Jew. We can’t expect the secular world to always accommodate us when our religious values come into conflict with regularly scheduled events. It is true that this wasn’t such a clear cut case in that there had been other accommodations for Seventh Day Adventists that amounted to precedent, but ultimately what makes being Shomer Shabbat so special is the knowledge that certain things are sacrificed to uphold the sacredness and sanctity of the Sabbath.

One of the truly amazing aspects of being part of the Rabbis Without Borders fellowship (which is run by Clal, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership) is the dialogue with colleagues from different denominations. I offered to include the viewpoints of my colleagues in this blog post and below are three opinions from members of my Rabbis Without Borders cohort.

Rabbi Jason Herman, an Orthodox rabbi in New York explains:

There is a Hasidic legend of a man who was offered a large sum of money by a king in exchange for a favor that would involve violating the Sabbath. The man declines but then presents the king with a gift thanking him for helping him realize that there was something in his life more valuable than the king’s treasure. The students of the Beren Academy in Houston faced the unfortunate circumstance where their request to have a high school basketball tournament postponed to avoid playing on the sabbath was denied. While these boys may be extremely disappointed and might even think the decision was unfair, they have the privilege of joining many generations of earlier American Jews who made tremendous sacrifices to observe the Sabbath. In doing so, we can hope that like the man in the story, they recognize that they have something in their lives that they value more than winning basketball tournaments. Yet, at the same time, while the league was in the right having told the school before they joined that they would face this issue, the league should reconsider its schedule for future years. The religious observance of student players is one that should be honored and for the sake of competition — the league and all schools involved should want to see the best team win.

Rabbi Hillel Norry, a Conservative rabbi in Atlanta, argues:

Would you change the date if it conflicted with Christmas? I think the obvious answer is, yes. The proof is that the tournament is not scheduled during church hours. The only arguments for not accommodating many different schedules and priorities is that the majority should dictate the results, and that if we accommodate shomer Shabbat Jews, then we will have to accommodate all scheduling needs. Unless you want a monolithic tournament that only includes the majority group and does not reflect the actual diversity of the community then the first argument fails on its face. And, yes I think we should accommodate many different needs – Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and many more. The basketball game is not more important than the creation of a large enough court to include all the players.

Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, a Reform rabbi in San Francisco, believes:

I am less concerned with what decision was made but with how the children will understand and interpret what they are seeing happen around them. It seems to me that the children who are going to play are learning that exclusion is more important than accommodation and full competition. To me this goes counter to the religious and athletic values being promoted by playing in this league in the first place. The children who are staying home are learning that the religious values that they are learning in school are worth sacrificing for.

The controversy seems to have been averted and Beren Academy will now be able to compete in the tournament. I wish them luck in their game and hope they emerge champions of the tournament. They won their case and managed to keep the Sabbath and keep their spot in the tournament. But I hope the lesson isn’t lost on them. In life, we often have to give something up to really appreciate the value that we hold dear. Shabbat it is a special gift that we Jewish people have, but sometimes it comes with a cost.

UPDATE: Beren Academy won their game today 58-46.

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

Must a Rabbi Report Confidential Confessions?

Earlier this week, I received a phone call from Niraj Warikoo, the religion editor of the Detroit Free Press. He told me that he was assisting another reporter on a local news story and had a few questions for me. Niraj described the case to me.

In 2009, a young girl reported to police that two years earlier when she was 9-years-old she was raped by a 15-year-old male cousin at a sleepover at her home. The boy’s pastor was informed of the allegation and he summoned the boy and his mother to the Metro Baptist Church in Belleville, Michigan to be questioned about the incident. The boy confessed to his pastor about the rape and then they prayed. The pastor, Rev. John Vaprezsan, went to the authorities and has since testified about the confession. Is that legal? Is that ethical?

It’s a horrible situation, but it also presents a host of interesting legal and ethical questions about what is known as pastor-penitent privilege. This privilege varies from state to state, but in Michigan it is protected in the same way as attorney-client privilege. In the Detroit Free Press article I explained that I honor the confidentiality of people who confess to me, but “if information that is confided in me would lead to serious harm of another human being, I would feel compelled to tell the authorities. That would include situations of abuse.”

It is important that people have a safe space to speak in confidence with their religious leader in addition to their attorney. Judaism does not place the same emphasis on confession as the Catholic faith does, but we do want people to feel comfortable speaking with their rabbi while they’re in the process of repentance.

Last night I appeared on Detroit’s Fox News affiliate to discuss this topic along with Ray Cassar, the defense attorney for the boy accused of rape. It was a very interesting discussion in which I fully agreed that in this case the pastor’s testimony about the accused’s confession should not be admissible in court. It is very important to protect the confidential discussions between clergy and congregant (or pastor and parishioner in this case). However, if I ever felt that confidential information I was given by a congregant could prevent a tragic act from taking place, I would feel compelled to break that confidentiality. In that case, the Jewish concept of pikuach nefesh (saving a life) would dictate my decision.

Here is the video of last night’s episode of “Let It Rip” on Fox2 Detroit:

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

Ben Stein Sues Kyocera for Religious Discrimination

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

With today’s 10-second tease video with Matthew Broderick hinting at a “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” sequel, it is only fitting to take a close look at Ben Stein’s ongoing legal battle with Kyocera. Stein, who played the memorable high school teacher in the 1986 movie (“Bueller? Bueller?”) was set to film a commercial for Kyocera, the producer of cameras, copiers, printers, mobile phones, and the like.

Even though Ben Stein’s lawyer “considered the deal done” according to the lawsuit, it appears there never was a signed contract between Kyocera and Stein. The company is very environmentally conscious and ultimately decided not to use Stein, who is a practicing Jew, upon learning of his anti-science views on global warming. Stein shot back against Kyocera claiming the company is infringing on his religious freedom since he maintains that as a Jewish man he believes that God and not man controlls the weather. Formally, Stein is claiming that Kyocera’s refusal to let him pitch their products constitutes “wrongful discharge in violation of fundamental public policy.”

Ben Stein claims that he is by no means certain that global warming was man-made, a position held by many scientists and political conservatives (Stein was a speechwriter in the Nixon Administration). His argument is that the opinion of whether man makes the weather or God makes the weather is a matter of religious belief and Kyocera has fired him based on that which is a violation of state and federal law.

Ben Stein’s arguments that his religious beliefs were being called into question and his rights were violated did not hold up very well. He then made a different complaint arguing that an actor who looks like him, Peter Morici, ultimately was featured in the Kyocera commercial and he is “an explicit misappropriation of Ben Stein’s likeness and persona, which is an explicit violation of Ben Stein’s rights of privacy and of publicity, barred by California law.”

If anything came out of this lawsuit it is that we now know that name Peter Morici. And if Ben Stein can’t agree to a contract to reprise his role as the boring econ teacher in the “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” sequel, Peter Morici will get another gig.

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

The Self-Proclaimed Jewish Conspiracy Against Kwame Kilpatrick

Ask anyone who grew up in suburban Detroit in the past forty years and they will explain the odd relationship that has long existed between the suburbanites and the City of Detroit. As I was coming of age in the Detroit suburbs, I was well aware of Mayor Coleman Young’s sentiment toward the mostly white suburbanites. According to his Wikipedia entry, Mayor Young “was criticized for his confrontational style toward suburban interests and the apparent diversion of city resources to downtown Detroit from other neighborhoods. Young was generally popular with the inhabitants of the inner city, while generally disliked by those of the suburbs because of his outspoken criticism of racism, white flight to the suburbs, economic problems, and other similar issues.”

Following the race riots of the late 1960s in Detroit, most Jews fled the city for the northwestern suburbs. My grandparents and parents were part of this migration. They moved from beautiful neighborhoods in Detroit to large homes in Bloomfield Hills and Southfield, Michigan. The City of Detroit became part of the history of Detroit’s Jewish community. My parents talk of “Old Jewish Detroit” the way their grandparents talked of the “Old Country.” Many Jewish Detroiters will venture Downtown to work, but make sure to head back North on the highway to be home by dinnertime. I’ve always gone Downtown for professional hockey, baseball or football games, as well as for concerts and theater productions, but we don’t often make a day of it like you can in other large American cities.

Some of this has changed in recent years. There has certainly been a bit of a renaissance taking place in Detroit. New stadiums for the Detroit Tigers (Comerica Park) and the Detroit Lions (Ford Field) have helped. Entrepreneurs like Dan Gilbert (Quicken Loans) and Peter Karmanos (Compuware) moving their companies Downtown has helped too. In the Jewish community, there has been a concerted effort to reinvigorate city life in Detroit. A recent New York Times article focused on the young entrepreneurial move to the City of Detroit. The opening of a Moishe House will further help to bring young Jews to the city and create an urban renaissance.

There seems to be a lot of optimism about a turnaround for the City of Detroit. Perhaps all this good news is what makes the reports of disgraced former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s upcoming book so disappointing. Mayor Coleman Young was a corrupt politician who likely benefited from kickbacks. But somehow, he survived as mayor for twenty years. Kwame Kilpatrick was worse. His hubris, deceit and unlawfulness caused his downfall.

Kwame Kilpatrick is serving a five-year jail sentence right now. But that hasn’t kept him from writing a book in which he blames his downfall on a Jewish conspiracy. The fact that there are no Jewish people around who could be blamed for his illegal activity notwithstanding, Kwame alleges that there was a Jewish plot to bring him down.

The Michigan Citizen, which calls itself America’s most progressive newspaper, was the first media outlet to receive a copy of Kwame Kilpatrick’s forthcoming book, Surrendered, which will be released in July. In the review of Kwame’s book they write:

The book is saturated with a redemptive overtone that tends to relay the renewed spiritual connection Kilpatrick has developed. It’s through this lens that he speaks to what happened to him, not declaring innocence in his actions but the unfairness in how the events surrounding those actions were handled.

Rather than seeking repentance for his misdeeds, Kwame cries that it was unfair the way he was treated and looks for a scapegoat. So, why not the Jews?

There’s always been somewhat of an underlying question in the midst of the Kilpatrick scandal: Who the hell did he piss off to bring this level of scrutiny?

This question could be answered in Kilpatrick’s account of visits by Detroit attorney Reggie Turner on behalf of the area’s powerful Jewish community. Kilpatrick’s General Counsel Sharon McPhail angered many organizations when she set out to improve the placement rates for groups receiving Workforce Development funds. She required recipients to reapply for their funding and submit detailed strategies to improve placement rates.

The Jewish Vocational Services, who received $25 million from the city in workforce funds, had only a two percent placement rate. They were cut.

According to Kilpatrick, the February 2007 Savior’s Day, an important event for African Americans, at Ford Field with Nation of Islam national leader Louis Farrakhan was also an offense to the Jewish community.

It’s amazing that throughout history the Jewish people have been an easy scapegoat. Here in Detroit, Henry Ford blamed the Jews for the nation’s ills. Father Charles Coughlin publicly scapegoated the Jews for all the political and economic problems in the world.

It’s shameful that the unremorseful former mayor is still looking for someone to blame. It’s equally troubling that the Michigan Citizen seems to fall for Kwame’s overt anti-Semitism. I wonder if they were compelled to give a positive review of Kwame’s autobiography in exchange for being the first media agency to get its hands on a copy of the book.

The list of charges in Kwame’s indictment is a long one. But perhaps the most egregious crime is that Kwame continues to grow the unfortunate divide among Detroit’s Jewish community in the suburbs and the City of Detroit at a time when a renaissance is within reach. And that’s just sad.

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