German Tech Company Hires Asperger’s Syndrome Workers

For many the 1988 movie Rain Man was their first introduction to autism. Twenty-five years later and not only is autism a household term, but most people know someone who has been diagnosed to be on the autism spectrum. Today, fans of the primetime TV show Parenthood have watched the young Max Braverman (played by Max Burkholder) grow up before us in our living rooms with Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism.

The character in Rain Man was an oversimplified example of someone with autism, but many of his attributes were accurate. In the movie, Dustin Hoffman’s character has unusual skills that are exploited by his brother to count cards in Las Vegas casinos. While the brothers’ activities were unethical, the movie demonstrated that individuals with autism have unique abilities that neurotypical people do not.

Rain Main Autism Asperger's
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment; MGM Home Entertainment; United Artists

Those abilities are being put to good use by a German technology company called Auticon, which exclusively employs people with autism. The company’s owner, Dirk Mueller-Remus, founded the Auticon when his own son was diagnosed with Asperger’s. He says, “Our guys have a lot of skills in concentration and analytical/logical thinking. And we are sure the IT (information technology) industry will have benefits.”

According to Auticon’s website, the company uses the logical and analytical strengths of their consultants in software testing and quality assurance. The special abilities of their consultants with Asperger’s are advantageous in the quality control of software. Auticon lays out a vision that is both entrepreneurial as well as social. On the business side, Auticon seeks to deliver pinpoint quality in the IT sector, but it is also highly focused on being socially conscience and increasing the quality of life of those with autism through job satisfaction.

The idea that those with Asperger’s have special abilities that make them better qualified in certain jobs like those at Auticon is no shock to Mike Levine, 35, of Royal Oak. Self-diagnosed with Asperger’s in February 2003 (and later confirmed by physicians), Levine explained that “a lot of ‘Aspies’ take a real liking to the Internet and technology and they’re good at it because of their ability to really focus. If they take a job in that field, they will likely succeed because of their special aptitude.”

When Levine first heard of Auticon’s program to hire those with Asperger’s he was surprised. “My first reaction is that it’s usually the other way around. ‘Aspies’ are usually seen as a deterrent and can’t get their foot in the door at companies. The fact that Auticon specifically desires people with Asperger’s to be software testers and managers is great. And it makes sense.”

Avi Kapen

Those with autism often have trouble fitting into the working world, but under Mueller-Remus’s leadership, the Berlin-based company has created the right working environment for people with autism and a culture that draws upon their strengths. That environment is essential says Avi Kapen, 39, of West Bloomfield, Michigan who was diagnosed with Asperger’s at 18-years-old by Dr. Ami Klin, a world renown autism and Asperger syndrome expert. Kapen works as a circulation page at the West Bloomfield Public Library and says that due to having Asperger’s, his job suits him well. “I think in some ways my Asperger’s helps me with my job. They didn’t know I have Asperger’s when they hired me, but they see how my ability to remember facts and numbers makes me successful.”

Levine agrees. About to celebrate his fifth year on the job as the office administrative assistant at Country Place Condo Association in Northville, Michigan, Levine maintains that he’s well suited for the job as a result of the combination of it being the right working environment for him and a structured, routine-focused position. That recipe has proven successful for Auticon as well and they’re not the only company looking to a workforce of autistic people in order to grow. Auticon’s Belgian partner has also shown that jobs for autistic people in the area of software testing and quality assurance lead to corporate growth and financial success.

Mike Levine

Auticon argues that many with Asperger’s have a knack for finding patterns and flaws in gigantic calculations making them well suited for software testing. For Kapen, remembering obscure numbers and facts has been a part of his life since he was a child. He only has to hear a date – like a friend’s birthday – once and it will never escape his memory. His special talent is recalling little known sports statistics and trivia about politicians. Some might find those characteristics odd and only focus on the peculiar social skills, but increasingly people are recognizing the positives of those gifts and looking to take advantage of them.

In Germany, roughly 15 percent of people with autism are employed in the private sector due to their trouble with social interactions, a symptom of Asperger’s. The program at Auticon, however, uses job coaches to help its employees with customer relations. Participants in the study state the training allows them to feel valued as employees.

One of Auticon’s new software testers, Philip von der Linden, has found the program to be a life changing experience, saying, “That is what makes life valuable. To be needed. And if what you can do is appreciated and if what seems to be a weakness is turned into an asset.”

While those with autism have been challenged to integrate into the professional world in the past, companies like Auticon are not only giving them new opportunities, but are also demonstrating that those with special talent are integral employees. The future quality of software coming out of Berlin will be superior and we’ll all have Auticon’s autism program to thank. Hopefully American tech companies will soon follow suit.

Cross-posted to the Detroit Jewish News

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

Ford’s New Jewish Leader

Originally published at JTA.org

It’s no secret that Henry Ford was a notorious anti-Semite, and his company’s dealings with the Nazi Party during the Holocaust are well documented. But the company’s story has changed drastically in recent years.

The Ford family’s donation of a rare 500-year-old Torah scroll to a suburban Detroit synagogue and the appointment of a Jewish chief operating officer demonstrate a marked shift in the company’s narrative when it comes to the Jewish community.

Mark Fields became the first Jewish COO of Ford Motor Company on December 1

The shift really began in the late 1940s when Ford’s grandson Henry Ford II took over the company and began hiring minorities, but it would take many more decades before Jewish executives were hired as officers. Mervyn Manning became the first Jewish officer of Ford when he became vice president in 1977.

During those years, Ford II already had started a period of repentance through action as the friend of such notable Jewish philanthropists as Max Fisher, making significant charitable gifts to the then-United Jewish Appeal.

Today in Detroit, the Ford Motor Co. and the billionaire family are regulary seen as major contributors to the Jewish federation and the Jewish community center. Members of the Ford family and top executives at the company have been honored by local Jewish groups.

And in 1999, Benson Ford Jr., a great-grandson of the auto tycoon, purchased the 500-year-old scroll and donated it to Temple Shir Shalom in West Bloomfield. The Torah was written in hiding between 1492 and 1560 in Spain or Portugal, where it was illegal to practice Judaism at the time.

The latest chapter in the long history of Ford and the Jews began Dec. 1, when Mark Fields effectively began running the 109-year-old international auto firm. Fields, 51, has been lauded for his intelligence, skill and dedication to the company. He has worked all over the world for Ford, including a stint as the CEO of Ford-controlled Mazda.

In early November, Bill Ford, the executive chairman and great-grandson of Henry Ford, announced the appointment of Fields — one that makes him the heir apparent for the CEO post when Alan Mulally retires in 2014 or earlier.

Fields, the descendant of Russian and Romanian Jews, became a bar mitzvah at a Conservative synagogue in Paramus, N.J., and received matzah and Hanukkah candles from his parents no matter where in the world he was working for Ford.

A graduate of Rutgers University and the Harvard Business School, where he earned a master’s degree in business, Fields maintains that he has never encountered any discrimination or anti-Semitism at Ford.

Bill Ford, making the announcement of Fields’ promotion, said, “The growth we’ve seen in him has been remarkable.”

While some might say that the anti-Semitic founder of Ford is likely rolling over in his grave as a Jewish man takes the reins of his historic company, the changes in the company have been happening for some time. History books will note Henry Ford’s discriminatory writings and practices, as well as the company’s ties to the Nazis during the Holocaust, but the Ford Motor Co. of the 21st century has continued the redemption process started by its founder’s scions.

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

MSU Hillel: If You Build It

Like many rabbis I’m often asked why I chose to become a rabbi. People are interested to know if there was a pivotal moment in my upbringing that steered me to the rabbinate. In responding to that question I’ve always cited my years as a student leader at Michigan State University Hillel.

A few weekends ago I spent a memorable weekend in East Lansing my eldest child and attended Shabbat festivities at MSU Hillel. It was the first Shabbat I experienced on the MSU campus since my graduation from the university almost fifteen years ago. It proved to be a nostalgic weekend for me and one in which I truly gave thanks for the many gifts that MSU Hillel provided for me.

My son in front of the MSU Hillel building earlier this month.

Early on in my college career there was a fire at the Hillel building. The structure was already old and in need of remodeling. After the fire, students attending events at Hillel would complain of the horrible smell from the fire and water damage. There was no doubt that a new Hillel building was sorely needed.

I became a student leader at MSU Hillel almost immediately. During “Welcome Week” my freshman year I was asked by the president of Hillel if I would be interested in taking a vacant position on the Hillel board. I had served as president of my synagogue youth group as a high school senior and just returned from a summer in Israel on a teen tour so I was eager to get involved in Jewish life on campus. I replied that I was interested and the rest was history.

I jumped right in and soon found myself spending a lot of time at Hillel. During my sophomore year I co-led the student board and was chairman of the Jewish Student Union. So after the fire I had a seat at the table discussing building plans with leaders of the institution’s “adult” board, architects, Jewish Federation leaders and donors. I recall a Federation executive cautioning me not to get excited about seeing the imagined new Hillel building while I was still a student, but that I would one day take pride in knowing I had something to do with its creation.

That lesson from the Federation executive proved true. The invitation to attend Shabbat dinner a few weeks ago was to honor MSU Hillel on the tenth anniversary of its Lester & Jewell Morris Hillel Jewish Student Center. Leading Shabbat evening services on the second floor that night I looked out at the very young looking faces in the congregation and flashed back to the many times I led services as a college student. I looked into the beautiful library room where one student was busily studying and recalled the thousands of hours I spent sitting in the old library of Hillel cramming for final exams, exploring ancient Jewish texts, and writing my admission essays for rabbinical school.

Following services that night my son asked why there were so many students at Shabbat dinner. I explained that Hillel was the only place on campus for students to enjoy a hot, kosher Shabbat meal. I told him how important Hillel is for Jewish students on campus. And then I told him how important Hillel was for me. Without MSU Hillel I don’t know where I would be today.

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

Jewish Children and Halloween: Point-Counterpoint

Tomorrow night is Halloween. Perhaps the only Jewish custom concerning Halloween is the debate as to whether it’s an appropriate celebration for Jewish children. Much has been written on both sides of the argument, but I have never addressed it here on this blog. This year, I decided to offer a point-counterpoint exchange answering the question “Is Halloween Kosher?” — Meaning: Is Halloween an acceptable experience for Jewish children in America? My friend and local colleague Rabbi Aaron Starr does not condone his children’s participation in Halloween while I do. Feel free to leave your own opinion in the comments below.

Rabbi Aaron Starr

POINT | It is hard to say “no” those whom we love the most. But, as parents, we know there are times when our sacred task is to teach and to guide, and thus to decline lovingly our children’s requests to do that which we as their caretakers know is dangerous physically or spiritually. For example, despite the vast commercialization and de-emphasis on the religious side of Christmas and Easter, Jewish parents should not allow their children to celebrate these Christian holidays. Likewise, Jewish parents should warmly steer our children away from the celebration of Halloween. Instead, Jewish living should be offered as the fun, meaningful, impactful path our children ought to take.

According to ABC News, Halloween dates back to a Celtic holiday when spirits were believed to rise from their graves, and costumes were used to fool the spirits in hope that farmers’ land would survive through the winter. Later, Christians assimilated Halloween into their own religion as the night before November 1’s “All Saints’ Day”. Then in the 19th century, Irish immigrants adapted their own native customs to the American celebration of Halloween, carving pumpkins into lanterns to honor the souls they believed were stuck in purgatory. What is clear is that the American celebration of Halloween is a product of strong pagan and Christian traditions that have been overly commercialized by twentieth and now twenty-first century candy and costume companies.

How much better it would be for our children and our People to encourage our kids to celebrate Jewish holidays with equal passion and excitement as others do Halloween! It seems to me far more uplifting to dress our children up in celebration of Purim and to give away gifts of food to our friends and those in need than to celebrate a pagan-Christian holiday by parading through dark streets in scary costumes receiving or even begging for candy from strangers.

Aaron Starr is a rabbi at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Michigan. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiStarr.


Rabbi Jason Miller

COUNTERPOINT | Our children (like us) are growing up in two worlds. They are living in Jewish homes, infused with Jewish values and traditions, and as participants in a vibrant Jewish Diaspora community. But, our children also live in a secular society in which certain “holidays” and their customs have become part of the fabric of that society.

While I would never condone Jewish children celebrating such Christian holidays as Christmas or Easter, I don’t see the problem in them participating in Halloween. This American tradition may draw its roots from troubling origins (like Thanksgiving), but over the centuries it has been become re-imagined as a fun, neighborhood experience. To draw a connection from the 21st century observance of Halloween to Samhain or All Hallows Eve is shortsighted and silly. I was unaware of the Celtic, Pagan and Christian connections to Halloween as an adult, and I suspect that will be the case for my children as well.

Today’s practice of Halloween seems innocent enough for me to allow my children to participate without hesitation. Our Halloween tradition consists of pumpkin picking (also used to decorate our sukkah) and then carving, selecting appropriate costumes (often recycled from Purim), and then walking our neighborhood with friends to go door-to-door collecting candy. There is no begging or threatening for these gifts of chocolate bars and lollipops; only the sweet sounds of repeated “pleases” and “thank yous” from the mouths of adorable children. Halloween is a night when the neighborhood comes alive. It’s an opportunity to catch up with neighbors as the cold winter looms. Upon our return home we sort through the collection of candy identifying the kosher sweets to keep and the non-kosher and undesirable ones to be donated.

To forbid our children to participate in Halloween is to pretend we’re living in a gated shtetl, ignorant of the American society with which our Jewish lives coexist. I have no problem saying “no” to those I love, but I also believe in the importance of making thoughtful, sensible decisions when there’s no harm to fear.

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

Top Yom Kippur Apologies of the Year

Yom Kippur begins on Tuesday evening next week and it will mark the 5,773rd year (give or take) that Jews will reflect on their misgivings and seek to be better in the coming year. It’s also an ideal day for apologizing for wrongdoing.

I love the list that JTA compiled of the top apologies of the year. They might not have all been heartfelt or sincere, but they were interesting nevertheless.

Of course, Detroit’s own Delmon Young made the list after apologizing for his anti-Semitic rant outside the Detroit Tigers’ Manhattan hotel this past spring. I think we’re still waiting for apologies from Michigan Speaker of the House Jase Bolger for banning Rep. Lisa Brown from speaking on the floor of the Michigan House for using the word “vagina” a few months ago. And an apology might be appropriate from the owner of a clothing store in India that goes by the name “Hitler”.

U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.)

U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.)

For skinny dipping in the Sea of Galilee during a congressional visit to Israel.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee

 The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee

For circulating unsubstantiated claims about casino magnate and Republican Party donor Sheldon Adelson.

Peter Madoff

Peter Madoff, brother of Bernie Madoff

For helping deceive investors in his brother Bernie’s Ponzi scheme.

Yeshivah College of Melbourne, Australia

Yeshivah College of Melbourne, Australia

For not doing enough to stop sexual abuse in its midst.

Detroit Tigers outfielder and DH Delmon Young

 Detroit Tigers outfielder Delmon Young

For launching into an anti-Semitic tirade at a New York hotel.

Nancy Brinker, founder of Susan G. Komen for the Cure

 Nancy Brinker, founder of Susan G. Komen for the Cure

For initially suspending funding for Planned Parenthood.

Andrew Adler, former owner and publisher of the Atlanta Jewish Times

 Andrew Adler, former owner and publisher of the Atlanta Jewish Times

For an opinion column in which he counted President Obama’s assassination as among Israel’s options in heading off a nuclear Iran.

The East End Madrassah, a Toronto Islamic school

The East End Madrassah, a Toronto Islamic school

For teaching students about “crafty” and “treacherous” Jews.

Tehmina Adaya, owner of the Hotel Shangri-La in Santa Monica, Calif.

Tehmina Adaya, owner of the Hotel Shangri-La in Santa Monica, Calif.

For not being quicker to address charges that her hotel had discriminated against pro-Israel activists.

Texas state Rep. Larry Taylor

 Tehmina Adaya, owner of the Hotel Shangri-La in Santa Monica, Calif.

For saying “don’t try to Jew them down” during a public hearing.

Former London Mayor Ken Livingstone

Former London Mayor Ken Livingstone

For being disparaging in a meeting with Jews.

Wodka Vodka

Wodka Vodka

For putting up billboards with the slogan “Christmas Quality, Hanukkah Pricing.”

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

Monday Morning Caption Contest

Leave your funniest caption in the comments section below:

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

Rabbi Yonah Bookstein’s Detroit Roots

I’ve been following Rabbi Yonah Bookstein for several years now. He’s a little more than 6 years my senior and I suppose I’ve looked up to him as a social media guru in the virtual Jewish community of the Web. I learned about his Detroit roots from a blog post he published back in September 2008 following a “Young Detroit in Hollywood” event that took place in California for Jewish expats of Michigan. He wrote:

Jewish Ex-Detroiters like myself have a religious attachement [sic] to our hometown. We have a tight-knit Jewish community, allegiance to local sports teams, and favorite bakeries, cafes, or delis. (Notice the absence of any allegiance to a synagogue or temple). When we leave Detroit, we leave close family back home – grandparents, aunts and uncles, parents, siblings and cousins. We get back for family events when we can. We try to keep up with the Tigers or Pistons. We root for U of M at the Rose Bowl. We often are connected to other Detroiters who made the move out here before us.

The Jews who left West Bloomfield, Birmingham, Southfield, or Bloomfield Hills, left for the greener pastures of Hollywoodland. Most are going to stay and put down roots. My Detroiter street cred: Zeemans [sic], Hillel Day School, Cranbrook, grandma at The Heritage, Tigers, Camp Tavor – I won’t mention the Synagogue.

I appreciated Rabbi Yonah’s honesty in that post and I let him know it. But I also made certain to inform him that Jewish Detroit was making a comeback and it was legit. Since that time almost 4 years ago, we’ve maintained a nice relationship through our blogs, projects, and Twitter. We regularly shmooze (virtually of course) about Detroit sports, and he will often ask me to weigh in on certain Detroit-specific issues.

The local Jewish newspaper, the Detroit Jewish News, often features young Jewish leaders who have returned to Detroit. I thought it would be interesting to look at someone like Rabbi Yonah with Detroit roots and no intention to return to Detroit, but an unwavering attachment to his hometown. So, two months ago I sent an email to the publisher and editor of the Detroit Jewish News: “Did you know Rabbi Yonah Bookstein is from Detroit and went to Cranbrook? He’s the guy behind Jewlicious. Might make for an interesting article. Maybe Robin Schwartz?”

Robin Schwartz’s story about Rabbi Yonah and his Detroit roots is featured on the cover of this week’s issue. Here it is:

Rabbi Yonah Bookstein recalls picking up a guitar for the first time at age 10, in the late 1970s, as a Hillel Day School student growing up in Detroit’s Palmer Woods neighborhood.

His late father, Marvin Bookstein — a bluegrass musician who played six different instruments — taught young Yonah the fundamentals, opening his eyes and ears to the beauty and power of music. He spent his early years attending concerts, going to Detroit’s Orchestra Hall, and attending chamber music festivals; so it’s fitting that Bookstein, now 42, of Los Angeles is the force behind Jewlicious. The nonprofit organization hosts hip seasonal music festivals in California that attract hundreds of young Jews from across the country.

“Music unifies and inspires people,” Bookstein says. “One of the reasons I got so into creating musical events is that music was an integral part of my life as a child.”
Bookstein’s family has deep roots in Metro Detroit. His father, grandfather and greatgrandfather all owned Ace Furniture Co.; the decades-old family business was sold in 1979. Bookstein attended high school and graduated from Cranbrook Schools in Bloomfield Hills. He was active in the Jewish Socialist-Zionist youth movement Habonim Dror and spent summers at its Camp Tavor near Kalamazoo.

Bookstein left town to attend the University of Oregon and Oxford University, was ordained by Ohr Somayach Yeshiva in New York and is a former Fulbright Fellow to Poland. In the 1990s, he and his wife, Rachel, worked for the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation in Poland. They founded Jewish youth centers in Krakow and Lodz, revived the Jewish Community Center in Warsaw, established the annual Warsaw Jewish Book Festival and created a center for adult Jewish education. Since returning to the United States, Bookstein’s focus has been uniting and inspiring young Jews across the country, first as a campus rabbi and now as director of Jewlicious. He has four children: Moshe, 13, Sophia, 11, Shlomo, 9, and Naftali, 5.

“I believe passionately in the Jewish future, and young people are the inspiration,” he says. “Our overall goal is to increase participation in Jewish life.”

The concept of Jewlicious was created in a garage in Long Beach, Calif., in 2005. The first festival attracted about 100 people, and the crowds have grown bigger and bigger each year. One event is held each summer; a second festival takes place each winter on an old cruise ship.

“It’s a mash up of a music festival and a conference, and it has about 90 programs over the course of three days,” Bookstein explains. “Everything from Jewish yoga to conversations with famous Jewish actors — it’s a pluralistic weekend with all kinds of offerings.

Tickets are currently on sale for the third annual SummerFest Music and Summer Camp Festival Aug. 16-19 in Brandeis, Calif., which has been described as “Jewish summer camp for grownups.” The event includes concerts, speakers, horseback riding, rock climbing, midnight hikes, bonfires, swimming, yoga, wine and pickle making, and more.

“We get people from 20 states and 50 colleges and universities,” Bookstein says. “It’s a really amazing pilgrimage.” Tickets range from $60-$175 for the weekend.

Participants can camp out or pay more for a room in a bunk or cottage. Right now, these events only take place in California, but Bookstein’s goal is to take the show on the road and host Jewlicious Festivals across the country. He already creates Shabbat hospitality tents at national music festivals. He’s also a member of the band Shankbone, which performs Jewish and Indie music a few times a year.

“Young people love festivals, and they love music,” he says. “We’ve created this platform, and it really could be replicated all over the country.

“I know Detroit because I grew up there. The Jewish community in Detroit has always been more cohesive, but in other places there’s a huge amount of assimilation. There’s an unengaged population of young Jews.

We’re only tipping the scales somewhat; there are so many people to reach and so many people to engage. It’s a huge undertaking.”

Bookstein relies heavily on social media to get his message out. His Jewlicious.com blog is said to be the Internet’s most-read Jewish blog. He also has podcast classes on Judaism on iTunes, more than 5,000 “friends” on Facebook and more than 8,000 followers on Twitter. In 2009, he was the top vote-getter in the Jewish Federation of North America’s inaugural Jewish Community Heroes Award, receiving more than 90,000 online votes.

“I’ve made it my focus to connect with young people,” Bookstein says. “If I want to be relevant and reach the constituency I believe is so critical to our future, I need to be engaged in social media on a daily and hourly basis.”

Rabbi Jason Miller, a local Jewish leader, entrepreneur and president of Access Computer Technology in West Bloomfield, follows Bookstein on the Web. Miller has his own blog, RabbiJason.com, and thousands of Facebook and Twitter followers. He believes the “traditional borders of the global Jewish community have disappeared through globalization and new technology.” The two rabbis are in regular communication online, but have not yet met in person.

“Yonah is one of these Jewish thought leaders of the social media age,” Miller says. “I read his blog regularly, and we mutually re-post and ‘retweet’ each other’s content because we run in the same social media circles. Yonah has an immense Twitter following and strong social clout, but it’s the way he uses those to push the boundaries of the ‘Jewish establishment’ that has really earned my respect. Not only is he a change agent helping the Israeli and Diaspora communities to think outside the box, but he also exudes a contagious form of excitement and optimism. I hope to meet him IRL (in real life) soon.”

Rabbi Bookstein tries to get back to Michigan at least once a year to visit friends and family members. Last summer, he brought his friend, Chasidic reggae singer Matisyahu, to the Motor City Moishe House in Detroit. The communal home for young adults offers subsidized housing and is meant to breathe new Jewish life into the city. At least 50 people showed up to meet Matisyahu and share a kosher meal before his concert at St. Andrews Hall.

After the visit, Bookstein wrote an article for the Jewish Journal in Los Angeles. In part, it reads: “When I was growing up in Detroit in the 1970s and ’80s, the notion that Jews would return to the city — literally the areas of old Detroit that housed the core of the community for a hundred years — was a remote fantasy. The community had been moving to the suburbs since the 1950s… However, Detroit’s Jewish community, who live almost entirely in the suburbs, is not ready to give up on a city that has such a rich and vibrant Jewish past.”

Just as Detroit is trying to revitalize and reinvigorate Jewish life locally, Bookstein is working to generate excitement and increase participation among young Jews nationwide. Jewlicious is attempting to win a Chase and LivingSocial grant of $250,000 through an online contest to further Bookstein’s efforts.

“Like everybody in the nonprofit sector, it’s challenging to fund these programs and meet the financial demands of creating these kinds of opportunities for young adults,” he says. “[Young Jews] care about their Jewish future and want to be a part of it. Business is booming. There’s a huge demand for what we do.”

While Rabbi Yonah might not be planning on a return to his hometown of Detroit, it is important for Detroiters to know that such an important figure who is making the future of American Jewry fun and exciting and vibrant got his start here. Deep down he wants to see the Jewish community of Detroit succeed and he has much insight to offer. I’m glad that Robin’s article will bring Rabbi Yonah and his energy a little closer to home.

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

Michigan Rep. Lisa Brown Talks About Her Kosher Kitchen and Her Vagina on House Floor

The title of this blog post would seem odd unless you are familiar with Lisa Brown’s speech on the floor of the Michigan House of Representatives yesterday. Somehow Brown, a State Representative from West Bloomfield, Michigan, managed to segue from a personal account of her kosher observance at home to mention that her vagina was not to be a topic discussed by her congressional colleagues.

For mentioning the word “vagina,” Brown was blocked from speaking on the state House floor today as punishment. Her speech yesterday was addressing a controversial bill that would have further regulated abortions in Michigan. At the end of her speech, Brown said, “Finally Mr. Speaker, I’m flattered that you’re all so interested in my vagina, but ‘no’ means ‘no.'”

So today, the Speaker of House censured Brown, refusing her to participate in a discussion of a school employee retirement bill. The Speaker’s argument was that Brown’s use of the word “vagina,” which is the technical, medical term for a part of the woman’s anatomy was a violation of the Michigan State House’s policy on decorum.

What I found more interesting than Brown’s rejoinder to her Republican colleagues across the aisle that her vagina was off limits was Brown’s description of her kosher observance and a cogent explanation for Judaism’s treatment of abortion.

Rep. Lisa Brown referenced the talk by her colleague from Holland, Michigan who spoke about religious freedom. She then went on to speak personally about her own faith.

I’m Jewish. I keep kosher in my home. I have two sets of dishes. One for meat and one for dairy, and another two sets of dishes on top of that for Passover. Judaism believes that therapeutic abortions, namely abortions performed in order to preserve the life of the mother are not only permissable but mandatory. The stage of pregnancy does not matter. Wherever there is a question of the life of the mother or that of the unborn child, Jewish law rules in favor of preserving the life of the mother. The status of the fetus as human life does not equal that of the mother. I have not asked you to adopt and adhere to my religious beliefs. Why are you asking me to adopt yours?

Here is the video clip of Rep. Lisa Brown’s talk on the House floor yesterday.

Rep. Lisa Brown (a fellow Bloomfield Hills Andover High School and Michigan State University alum) gave a press conference today in Lansing following the House of Representative’s decision to ban her from speaking in today’s session. The video of her press conference is available here.

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

Passover and Pet Food

As a kosher supervisor (mashgiach) and the owner of a kosher certification agency, I am constantly impressed by the level of attention, respect and genuine care that non-Jewish business owners demonstrate for their kosher observant customers. I once again witnessed this first hand when I met the owner of Premier Pet Supply last week.

Mike Palmer, who is half Chaldean and half Italian, owns the pet food and supply store with his uncle, the store’s founder. Located in Beverly Hills, a suburb of Detroit, the store has received a lot of positive attention of late because of Mike’s knack for publicity and his people skills (he obviously has great pet skills too!). The store is consistently named best pet supply store in the area and Mike was just named one of the Elite 40 Under 40 for Oakland County, Michigan.
Mike called me a few weeks ago and asked if I would come by his store before Passover to answer some questions about kosher for Passover pet food. Since my family doesn’t own any pets and I haven’t certified kosher dog food in over a year (the dog treat company Kosher Michigan certified went out of business in 2010), I decided to brush up on the laws concerning pet food on Passover. And it’s a good thing I did because when I got to the store I was overwhelmed by the amount of knowledge Mike possessed concerning the kosher laws and Passover. He knew more about the intricacies of the holiday than many Jewish people I know.
As we walked the aisles of his store I checked the pet food that he had labeled as being appropriate for Passover and there were no errors. He explained that he had read an article by the Star-K kosher certification agency and felt he had a good understanding of what makes pet food kosher for Passover, but he wanted to run some questions by me. We had a long conversation about kitniyot (legumes, which most Ashkenazi Jews don’t eat on Passover) as well as the custom of feeding the family dog in the garage on Passover, which many families follow. Over and again, I heard Mike express how important he believes it is to provide quality service to his Jewish customers and ensure that they can purchase the best food for their pets on Passover while adhering to the holiday’s regulations.
In terms of what Jewish law says about pet food on Passover, the most important thing to remember is that chametz (leavened products) from the five grains (barley, oats, rye, spelt, or wheat) is forbidden to eat or derive benefit from. Feeding chametz to one’s pet would be deriving benefit from it. Additionally, a Jewish person is not allowed to even possess any chametz on Passover. 
As I explained to Mike, while kitniyot (legumes) are not eaten by most Ashkenazi Jews, they may be fed to pets on Passover. Also, one does not need to change over the dishes for pets, meaning that the usual food bowls for pets can be used on Passover but they should be cleaned out first.
A 2009 article in the NY Times featured a Passover Seder for dogs that took place at a Chicago pet food store to promote Evanger’s Dog and Cat Food Company which sells Kosher for Passover products. (Joshua Lott/Chicago Tribune)

There is a custom of “selling” one’s pet to a non-Jew on Passover. The reason for this has to do with deriving benefit from chametz. Thus, if one leaves a pet with a non-Jew during Passover the pet owner will still derive benefit from chametz when the non-Jewish friend feeds the pet. Therefore, some observant Jews will “sell” the pet to the non-Jewish friend on the condition it is sold back at the conclusion of the holiday in the same fashion as the “legal fiction” sale of chametz.

While many Jews are not familiar with the laws governing pet food on Passover, it is reassuring that there are pet supply store owners like Mike Palmer who are concerned about this. It is admirable that he has taken the time to research this subject and has gone out of his way to help his Jewish customers find the right pet food for Passover.

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

A Detroit Jewish Nonprofit Competes in Facebook Contest to Win $250,000

Thousands in Metro Detroit’s Jewish community have been flocking to Home Depot’s Facebook page in recent weeks. No, they are not all interested in becoming fans of the national retail giant. They are simply trying to help a local social service agency win $250,000 from the Home Depot Foundation.

Jewish Family Service in Michigan was one of 12 nonprofits around the country to win a monthly prize of $25,000 cash and another $5,000 in Home Depot gift cards from the Home Depot Foundation this past January. That win put them in the competition for the Aprons in Action contest that will give away a total of a half-million dollars in March. JFS plans to use the cash prize for its Project Build! program, which provides JFS clients with safe and barrier-free homes through pro bono repairs and renovations provided by local builders, remodelers and suppliers.

While many nonprofits in the Jewish community are still trying to find their way in the new world of social media, online contests like the Home Depot Foundation’s Aprons in Action have pushed nonprofit organizations to create a social media strategy to get out the vote on Facebook, the social networking site that boasts more than 850 million users.

Retail giants like Target and Home Depot, as well as large corporations like Toyota and Ford Motor Company, have drawn millions of Facebook users to their corporate and foundation “Fan Pages” through their online contests.

These crowd-raising initiatives have required nonprofits to familiarize themselves with such 21st-century terms as “social clout,” “social analytics,” “network amplification,” “true reach” and “social media influence.” Additionally, these nonprofits that compete in the contests have to quickly bolster their own online social identity to broadcast their participation in the contest. Many of these nonprofits are trying to raise their online presence on a shoestring budget, if they have allocated any marketing funds to social media at all.

In most cases, competing in such online contests is a gamble for the nonprofits because they don’t know what their return on investment will be, and they are allocating a lot of resources, including staff time, to the cause. JFS has recruited Jewish professionals and lay leaders in the community to reach out to their own networks to encourage daily voting on the Home Depot Foundation Facebook page during March. Local members of the Jewish community were asked to include reminders on their social networking sites and in email signatures. Some also participate in “post-a-thons,” where volunteers gather at a site and recruit voters via laptop postings. Additionally, JFS offered a daily email reminder service to increase its odds of securing the most votes.

“The Home Depot contest, as well as our success last summer at winning Toyota’s 100 Cars for Good competition, has made us aware that everything we do needs to have a social media layer,” explained Perry Ohren, CEO of JFS. “This has profound meaning in terms of our timing and our message. Timing has to be instantaneous and our message has to be short and engaging.”

One organization that has found much success in using its social reach to garner the votes needed to win online contests is Chabad Lubavitch. The international organization headquartered in Brooklyn exploits social networking not only to broadcast its message globally, but to also win financial grants. Chabad schools and service organizations, like the Friendship Circle, have used Facebook and Twitter to rack up hundreds of thousands of votes in national contests for six- figure grants by Chase Community Giving and Target Stores.

In a Facebook contest sponsored by Kohl’s Cares, 12 Jewish day schools in the U.S. finished in the top 20 of the competition, with 11 of those schools being Chabad-affiliated. Friendship Circle of Michigan, an organization dedicated to helping children with special needs, won $100,000 when it finished third in the Chase Community Giving Challenge on Facebook after using several social media tools to get out the vote.

Through these online contests, major corporations are able to donate funds to social service organizations, but it’s not completely altruistic. After all, the corporations are attracting a lot of attention to their brand. In the case of Home Depot, they are able to get thousands of people to visit their Facebook page each day for a month and look at their corporate logo, even if it is subliminal advertising. That is valuable advertising for the company and the half-million dollar investment is a small fraction of the retail giant’s more than $1 billion advertising budget.

Foundations for these large companies, like the Home Depot Foundation, have to make large charitable gifts each year so they figure they should at least help promote their corporate brand in the process.

Regardless of the motivation behind these online contests, it is certain that they have been the driving force in getting nonprofits to focus more on social media strategies. Hopefully, when there’s no large cash prize at the end of the rainbow, nonprofits will continue to utilize social media to promote theircause, raise awareness about their mission and solicit donations.

Originally published in the Detroit Jewish News and posted on the eJewishPhilanthropy.com blog

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