Michigan Wins Sugar Bowl, Receives Kiddush Cup

It’s been a great beginning of 2012 for Michigan sports teams. The Michigan State Spartans won the Outback Bowl in a nail biting 3rd overtime victory, the Michigan Wolverines won last night’s Allstate Sugar Bowl in overtime, and Michigan State beat Wisconsin last night in an exciting down-to-the-buzzer game of college hoops. The Red Wings are neck and neck with the Chicago Blackhawks for first place, the Detroit Pistons are on a two-game winning streak, and the Detroit Lions are in the post-season for the first time since 1999.

There was even an apparent Jewish connection at the end of last night’s Sugar Bowl when Michigan coach Brady Hoke hoisted the Sugar Bowl trophy, which can best be described as a Silver Kiddush Cup Award.

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

Response to Rick Perry’s Campaign Ad

Like many millions of people, when I watched Texas Governor Rick Perry’s “Strong” Campaign ad for the first time on YouTube I was deeply troubled. “I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a Christian,” Perry begins. “But you don’t need to be in the pew every Sunday to know there’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.”

My first thought was of the gay men and women currently serving in uniform who are risking their lives in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere around the globe to protect our country. I immediately decided to film a parody of Rick Perry’s video. I wanted it to be a spoof of his video in order to show the ridiculousness of his message.

The response to my video has been great so far. After only 15 hours there have been about 800 likes and only 10 dislikes with almost 5,000 views. The most meaningful aspect has been the comments on the YouTube video. One viewer wrote, “i’m an atheist but i would sure would vote for rabbi jason over any of the idiots that are postulating themselves if i could.” Another wrote, “As a non religious person raised as a christian in the church, i strongly support this, I have friends of all religions and believe our differences is what makes this country great! THANK YOU FOR YOUR EDUCATED WELL THOUGHT OUT OPINION.”

I have been pleasantly surprised that there have not been more negative, hate-filled comments in response to my video. I will not censor any comments because I believe it’s important that everyone sees the hate that exists in some people’s hearts and the ignorance that exists in their minds. Here’s a comment that made me feel very good this morning: “Bless you, Rabbi! Thanks for retaliating in such an intelligent, focused, and humorous video! Every time I’m reminded that there are people like you in this country, I have hope for it again… Hope you and your family have a bright and beautiful Hannukah! Cheers! -from Agnostic, Gay, Christopher :)”

Here is the video, which was filmed and edited by Adam Luger:


Text:
I’m not ashamed to say that I’m a Jew — Heck, I’m even a Rabbi… but you don’t need to be in shul on every Shabbos to know there’s something wrong in our country when gays can serve openly in the military and yet they still can’t get married legally in most U.S. States.

Our Jewish kids in public school have to watch as their peers celebrate Christmas — a holiday they don’t observe. They have to sit quietly as the Christian students pray in school. That just seems uncomfortable.

As President, I will fight to end this crazy talk that there’s a war on religion. And I will fight anyone who discriminates against others simply because of their sexual orientation.

Intelligence made America strong. It can make her strong again.

I’m Rabbi Jason Miller and I think it’s too cold to film a video outside in Michigan in the winter. Who approved this?

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

Detroit Brothers Produce Over 500 Mobile Apps

Originally published in The Detroit Jewish News

There’s An App For That!
Local brothers’ jacAPPS business rolls out more than 500 mobile apps.

In what could have easily been mistaken for a scene from HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, two brothers sit at a conference room table in Southfield bouncing ideas off each other for mobile applications that could improve Jewish life.

A small collection of iPhones and iPads sits on the table, as one brother remarks that it would be cool if they created an app that would replay the rabbi’s sermon just in case you dozed off in the middle. The other brother suggests they create an app that allows congregants to choose High Holiday seats by selecting the seats before the holiday and making a donation right from their cell phone. They share a brotherly laugh as they reflect on one brother’s seat-saving tradition in which he drapes tallits (prayer shawls) over the rows of seats for the entire family.

With one look these brothers seem to intuit that they’ve found a need for another app. This look is one that has no doubt been flashed from one brother to the other more than 500 times over the past few years. When there’s a need for something to be available on a mobile phone, Fred and Paul Jacobs will be there to come up with the way to do it.

The brothers launched jacAPPS (pronounced Jake-Apps; a riff on their last name) three years ago when they noticed a need for mobile applications in the radio industry. “Back in the fall of 2008 with the economy facing unprecedented challenges, few would have expected a company like ours to emerge as the leading app developer for radio,” company president Fred Jacobs, 60, of Bloomfield Hills explained.

The brothers’ entrée into the mobile apps market wasn’t by accident. Fred, the oldest of three brothers (Bill isn’t involved in the apps company), formed Jacobs Media in 1983 and went on to create the Classic Rock format while sitting at his kitchen table. Today, the company is the nation’s largest radio consulting firm specializing in rock formats. Each year, Jacobs Media uses Techsurveys to track the leading-edge technology trends in their industry, and in 2008 those surveys pointed the way to the smart phone revolution and the explosion of mobile apps. jacAPPS hasn’t stopped creating apps since and today it is one of the top developers in Michigan.

Having consulted rock and indie radio stations since the 1980s, the Jacobs brothers always try to figure out what radio listeners are doing and how they’re using technology. Their job is to help radio stations better understand the listeners. They knew that radio had lost much of its portability as people were choosing to listen to an iPod or MP3 player in place of a Sony Walkman or portable boom box. In recent years, when they realized that people were beginning to stream their favorite radio stations on mobile devices, they recognized that radio would once again be portable and they leapt into action. Rather than allow their clients to have their music streamed along with other radio stations’ music, they decided it was better to have single station apps. Apple’s AppStore had only been open for 90 days when they got to work on their first mobile app.

“Individual station brands deserved their own mobile apps,” wrote Fred Jacobs on the jacAPPS blog. “Surprisingly, some of radio’s biggest broadcasters took a different direction, building their own ‘umbrella apps’ that featured hundreds of their stations. You cannot underestimate the success of iHeartRadio or CBS’s Radio.com — apps that aggregate hundreds of radio stations under a big tent. Many smart phone owners swear by these apps, allowing them the ability to hear ‘favorite’ stations, while providing a diversity of choice. But our contention was that consumers are less focused on corporate brands than they are on hometown stations in their markets — or in cities where they once lived or visited. And for individual stations, the app experience has been powerful.”

After its incorporation, jacAPPS designed and released 20 apps in six months and began hiring young talent to grow the business. They continuously asked themselves what a mobile application can do that the radio station’s website cannot do.

They already had the listening ears of radio station executives across the country who were ready to implement whatever Fred and Paul Jacobs were recommending. When they told these radio stations that there existed a strategic need for customized mobile apps, the radio stations got in line and put in their orders.
The first app jacAPPS created was for WRIF, a Detroit based Rock radio station. “They did a great job and allowed us to be one of the first radio companies to provide iPhone apps to our listeners and they helped us transform our business from strictly broadcast to a multiplatform media company,” said Tom Bender, senior vice president and general manager of Greater Media Interactive, owner of local stations WRIF, WCSX and WMGC.

“We are now in the development of version 3.0 of our station apps for both iPhone and Android phones,” Bender added. “We have brainstormed for additional new functions that would be of high user interest, and jacAPPS was invaluable in that process. It’s easy to get enthused by a shiny new piece of technology, but to have the research and user input to know how often and exactly how it’s going to be used make the difference. That, more than flashy graphics or slick colors, is the real creative input for me.”

The watershed moment for jacAPPS was when Christian Radio signed on. “We were recognized early on by iconic brands like K-Love and Air1, which opened up the Christian Broadcasting world to us,” explained company vice president and general manager Paul Jacobs, 57, of Farmington Hills. “Car Talk, C-SPAN radio, and other great non-commercial radio franchises have added to our portfolio.”

jacAPPS has been grateful for the many Christian radio stations that have ordered customized mobile apps, but they are especially proud of some of the Jewish-themed apps their company has created such as Jewish Rock Radio, launched by Jewish recording artist Rick Recht. “We launched Jewish Rock Radio with the goal of creating the first truly high-caliber, 24/7 international Jewish rock radio station – a critical communication channel for the Jewish world based on the business models, the aesthetics, and ‘best pratices’ of the very best online radio stations offered in the Christian and secular worlds,” Recht, the executive director of Jewish Rock Radio explained. “When we dug deeper to find the developer behind some of the stations we wished to emulate, we found JacApps. With JacApps, we had found a developer who could not only create apps that were on caliber with some of our favorite Christian stations, but literally had created some of those apps!”

The Jacobs brothers believe strongly that radio stations were originally questioning if their music should be available on a stream, but they have taken it to the next level as their clients realize that they must have an app. They see themselves as improving the radio experience in the 21st century by helping radio stations create something that will generate revenue, enchant their audience and help them better distribute their content in the digital age.

While radio was their springboard into the mobile application industry, jacAPPS now designs and builds apps for a wide array of business categories and industries including festivals, events and sports brands. The Southfield-based company, which was spun off from Jacobs Media this summer, has created apps for the Spartan Sports Network, Ann Arbor Art Fairs, the Detroit International Jazz Festival and the Taste of Atlanta. The company is looking forward to creating apps for political candidates as the upcoming election approaches.

One difficulty for jacAPPS has been the lack of compatibility across platforms. They have had to create separate custom apps for their clients on Apple devices, as well as on the Android and Blackberry platforms.
Since its launch in 2008, jacAPPS has created more than 500 apps for hundreds of clients. And with more than 11 million downloads, they can likely claim the most amount of downloads for any app company in Michigan (Crains Detroit wrote, “The company is by far the leading app developer in metro Detroit.”). What has set them apart is their ability to build a company’s entire mobile strategy from the concept of the app to its design through development and marketing. In today’s portable world, Fred and Paul Jacobs have figured out how to elevate their clients’ brands and to successfully integrate that into the dynamic mobile space.

The jacAPPS team is made up of a handful of young, talented employees who are several decades the Jacobs brothers’ junior. They all seem to understand that mobile applications are the next step in the technology revolution. Bryan Steckler, operations manager, said, “We are now where we were with websites in the 90s. Big brands have mobile apps, and now every business is realizing they need an app.”

The two brothers enjoy working together in the same business. Pointing to his younger brother, Fred said, “If you can’t trust this guy, who could you trust?”

They are both quick to acknowledge that they would not be as close if they weren’t in business together. “It’s a family business and that leads to group collaboration,” Steckler said. “The fact that they’re brothers is what makes the company what it is. And that transfers to our clients as well.”

“We’ve been fortunate to build a team of smart, young talented people here in Southeast Michigan. Our apps are truly ‘exported from Detroit,’ and showcase the resurgence of the technology industry in an area more commonly recognized for its heavy industry,” Fred Jacobs remarked.

The future for jacAPPS is bright as the mobile app market continues to surge. “We see nothing but growth and expansion ahead. By blending strategy, research, and keeping a laser focus on the consumer experience, our expectation is that jacAPPS will become a leader in full-service mobile resource for brands of all types that recognize the mobile future,” said Fred.

The company has had its share of proud moments as it became one of the top mobile app developers. jacAPPS has had the top app in the App Store in New Zealand; its NPR Radio app was featured on the front page of the U.S. App Store; and its app for Pulse 88.7 in New York was featured on a billboard for Apple.

jacAPPS has developed a number of mobile apps for nonprofit companies at either no cost or discounted rates. The team has also taken pride in having the opportunity to work with interesting people. Among its clients is a Native American Council made up of several tribes. jacAPPS has created an educational application to teach the Native American language to children. As the development team demonstrates the app on an iPad, it is clear that they understand the role they have played in the continuity of these people’s heritage.

Paul Jacobs holds his iPhone and with a smile says, “We’re never more than six feet away from this device. This is the one device that’s always with you and the one that you’ll return home for in the morning if you forgot it. It is the hub of a person’s identity.”

The phrase “there’s an app for that” has become a popular punch line and much of the reason for that can be attributed to Fred and Paul Jacobs and their creativity.

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

Mitch Albom’s Having a Very Jewish Year

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

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

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

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

Meeting Mitch Albom for the first time in 1996.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding Values in Detroit Sports: Tigers Fans, Lions Fans and Ndamukong Suh

As a rabbi blogger who writes about sports, I’m always interested in the values that can be learned from watching sports. There are many situations in which the players, coaches, management or fans will do something that leads us to discuss how the situation was values driven.

In Detroit, there are three situations that occurred here recently that I believe speak loudly about our values. One of these events makes Detroit look good. The other two? Well, not so much. The first occurred in mid-August at Comerica Park, the home of the Detroit Tigers. It was an event that had little to do with Detroit’s baseball team and much more to do with the Detroit fans. It was a scene that made me proud to live in Detroit.

When opposing player Jim Thome hit his 600th career home run against the Tigers, fans at Comerica Park gave Thome a thunderous ovation. The Detroit Tigers’ faithful didn’t simply stand and applaud as their team’s opponent circled the bases. They maintained a long and lasting cheer for the future Hall of Famer who has had a career of hurting the Tigers. Thome has hit over 65 home runs against the Tigers (more than against any other club) and no matter which team Thome has played for (Cleveland Indians, Chicago White Sox or Minnesota Twins) he has always found success against the Tigers.

This strong demonstration of commendation for an opposing player led sportswriter Pat Caputo, writing in the Oakland Press, to ask if it was appropriate for Detroit fans to give Jim Thome such a thunderous standing ovation. He argues that while “on the surface, that’s the way it should be, considering the magnitude of the moment. I mean only eight players in major league history have hit 600 or more career home runs… But it was a 3-run shot and turned a close 6-5 game into a bit of a rout. It was one of two home runs Thome hit Tuesday. The other was a 2-run blast that broke a 3-3 tie. The Tigers are in a pennant race. Those home runs were extremely damaging to their cause. Should fans really have been cheering Thome so lustily under the circumstances?” Caputo had no problem with the enduring standing ovation because he believes that “baseball lore trumps all,” but many fans who called into his radio show and his co-host Dennis Fithian were really upset by the response of the fans inside Comerica Park and called them “dupes.”

For me, I thought this was one of the highlights of the Tigers’ memorable season. It was an emotional sight to see Detroit’s hometown fans showing so much respect for an opposing player who accomplished such a momentous feat. Despite Jim Thome’s 2-run home run that broke a 3-3 tie in that regular season game, the Tigers still won the division and made it to the American League Championship Series. That home run didn’t change that, but it did make Thome feel good to have received such a rousing ovation in an opponent’s ballpark. And it made me proud to be a Detroiter.

The other two events did not make me feel proud to be a Detroiter. And they both occurred yesterday on Thanksgiving day at the Detroit Lions game. The first has nothing to do with sports, but a lot to do with respect. The halftime show at the Lions Thanksgiving Day Classic always attracts big name recording artists like Kid Rock, the Allman Brothers Band, and Mariah Carey. This year Canadian rockers Nickelback was invited to perform at halftime. Some Detroiters disagreed with the decision to have a Canadian band perform on Thanksgiving Day. Others disagreed with the choice because they don’t find Nickelback to be talented musicians and they don’t care for their music. Thus, a petition was circulated on the Web by a University of Michigan student at change.com that ultimately had over 10,000 signatures urging that Nickelback be banned from performing in Detroit. The irony of this is that Detroit is one of the band’s strongest markets.

Ultimately, the petition didn’t do anything other than stir up some controversy, lead to Nickelback having some fun with the situation and making a FunnyOrDie parody video, and launch an alternative half-time show by Jewish musician Mayer Hawthorne (né Andrew Cohen) outside of his parents’ home in Ann Arbor. When Nickelback took the stage at Ford Field, the Detroit fans should have applauded them. Even if they don’t care for their music and even if they would have preferred American performers, it only makes Detroit look bad when the hometown fans booed the band. Detroit is working hard to improve its image and booing the halftime show performers on national TV is not a step in the right direction.

The third situation occurred not long after the Nickelback halftime show when Detroit defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh was ejected from the Lions-Green Bay Packers game. Suh stomped on an opposing offensive lineman after pushing the player’s head onto the turf twice. Suh was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct and ejected from the game. This stuff happens on occasion in the rough and tumble game of football, but it happens when Suh is around much more often.

What actually occurred on the field is not what I look at for a lesson in values. Rather, it is Ndamukong Suh’s post-game explanation that makes him look bad (and by extension his team and Detroit). In a press conference following the game (he probably shouldn’t have participated in any interviews), Suh said, “I want to apologize to my teammates, my coaches and my true fans for allowing the refs to have an opportunity to take me out of this game… What I did was remove myself from the situation the best way I felt, with me being held down.” Suh then went on to try to defend himself, saying he was trying to keep his balance while freeing himself from the brief scuffle. His fabricated story went like this: “My intention was not to kick anybody, as I did not, removing myself. I was on top of a guy, being pulled down, and trying to get up off the ground — and why you see me pushing his helmet down, because I’m trying to remove myself from the situation, and as I’m getting up, I’m getting pushed, so I’m getting myself on balance.”

Suh is a professional athlete and represents his team. He is an adult. The story he tells to defend his unsportsmanlike antics sounds more like a defense that a child would concoct to prove his innocence. Suh shouldn’t have pushed his opponent’s head into the turf and he shouldn’t have stepped on him while he was down. But what he should have down afterward was own up to his actions and apologize. That is not the image that Detroit wants to convey. Especially not on national television.

I’m a proud Detroiter and a proud Detroit sports fan. It’s moments like the one in Comerica Park this past August when Jim Thome made history and the fans recognized that beautifully that make me even prouder to be a Detroiter. It’s moments like the two that happened in Ford Field yesterday that should remind us that we can do better.

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

I’m From Detroit Too: A Response to Toby Barlow

This is my first article for the new Huffington Post Detroit:

I was excited last week when the Huffington Post launched its new Detroit section. I clicked the link to take me to the new page dedicated to my hometown and the first article I read seemed to tell me that I wasn’t really from Detroit after all. Toby Barlow’s “Detroit, Meet Detroit” rant would have you believe that “many, if not most, of the people who identify themselves as being from ‘Detroit’ have really no idea what Detroit is like.” What?!

I’m very happy that Barlow has fallen in love with Downtown Detroit and everything that it has to offer him — from grocery stores no one in the suburbs think exist to the dry cleaners where he drops off his shirts. Whether Barlow realizes it or not, through his words he has brought the late Mayor Coleman A. Young back to life. Or at least the former mayor’s sentiment. In his twenty years in office, Mayor Young successfully drew a sharp divide between the residents of the City of Detroit and the suburbanites. The race riots of the late 1960s forced middle class whites to flee the city, but it was Mayor Young who kept them away. The polarizing mayor made the Eight Mile border a dividing landmark between the races. I’m afraid Barlow isn’t helping matters today.

When I’m out of town and someone asks me where I’m from, I tell them I’m from Detroit. If I told them I’m from West Bloomfield (the suburban city of my childhood) or Farmington Hills (where I currently reside) they wouldn’t know if that was in Michigan or Minnesota. If they look at me confused, then I explain I’m from the suburbs outside of the city. I don’t think that is any different than someone who lives in Skokie, Illinois telling people they live in Chicago, or someone who lives in Newton, Mass telling people they are from Boston.

I know Detroit well and I know what Detroit is like — bruises and all. It is a great city full of much potential and I enjoy spending time downtown. In any given year I find myself heading downtown for Tigers baseball and Red Wings hockey and Lions football, concerts at the Fox Theater and Comerica Park, and shows at the Fisher Theater and the Detroit Opera House. In the past year I’ve spent more time in the city as more businesses have moved in. There is certainly a revival in the Motor City and we should all be excited about the possibilities. But I want to caution Toby Barlow and anyone else who believes that to really be part of the Detroit renaissance one has to pick up and relocate to Downtown Detroit.

The people who are paving the way for this renaissance do not live in the city. Yes, these business people are working hard to get young talent to move to Detroit and live affordably in Midtown or Downtown with attractive stipends. But at the end of the day these executives are driving back north to their homes in the suburbs. Even the current mayor of Detroit, Dave Bing, maintains his home in the wealthy suburb of Franklin for when he’s not staying at the Manoogian Mansion on the Detroit River. And it’s important for Barlow to know that these tycoons who are buying up real estate in the center of the city and relocating their companies didn’t make their money in Detroit. The two mega companies now situated in Campus Martius were based in the suburbs (Compuware began in Southfield before moving its headquarters to Farmington Hills, and Quicken Loans had its headquarters in Livonia).

Even if the majority of employees who work in Detroit head back home north of Eight Mile at the end of the day, Barlow should be grateful to them. They’re paying income taxes to the City of Detroit where he lives but doesn’t work (a simple Internet search shows that Barlow works for an organization that is based in Dearborn, not within the city limits). For many energetic young people like Barlow Detroit seems like a euphoric metropolis now, but will they continue to reside Downtown when their kids are ready for school? The fact is that Detroit still has a high crime rate. How will that impact these enthusiastic Detroiters’ decisions to stay put as their kids get older?

In his article, Barlow cynically writes that it’s great that suburbanites might know the Faygo song but they probably don’t know about “the College of Creative Studies’ massively incredible new Taubman Center.” Hold on one second. How does Barlow think the CCS got that massively incredible new Taubman Center? Let me explain. From the generosity of Al Taubman. And I wonder if Barlow knows where Mr. Taubman got the money to support such a center that he finds to be massively incredible? He made that money owning malls. Big malls. In suburbs. In fact, since Novi is the first suburban city (of many) Barlow condescendingly mentions in his article, it’s ironic that without Twelve Oaks, the massively incredible mall that Taubman built in Novi, there probably wouldn’t be a Taubman Center at the CCS in Detroit. Barlow writes, “Nothing good ever came out of suburbia.” Perhaps he wants to rethink that one.

Both of my parents grew up in Detroit. They both graduated from Mumford High. Their families left the city, but not because the big homes with big yards in the suburbs were so appealing. They left the city because the city was changing for the worse. They left reluctantly, but who wouldn’t? There was increased crime and race riots that were bad enough the National Guard was called in. I sat with my parents last year as we watched the stage production of “Palmer Park,” which accurately portrayed the tense race relations in that Detroit neighborhood in 1967. My parents had tears in their eyes (and so did every other native Detroiter of their generation who sat in the theater) because this production brought back the emotionally jarring, difficult times of that period.

My grandparents’ generation didn’t turn their backs on the City of Detroit. They continued to work in the city and support its culture. They were saddened that they had to move out because they didn’t have a choice. In fact they always spoke nostalgically and lovingly about the City of Detroit. And my parents’ generation didn’t turn their backs on the city either. When you live in the suburbs you’re just not going to head downtown every Saturday night for dinner. It’s just not realistic. That doesn’t mean that suburbanites are forsaking the city. It also doesn’t mean that we’re ignorant of the city’s offerings. I never doubted that people who live Downtown like Barlow are able to get their dry cleaning done close to home and go food shopping. I’m thrilled that there are new restaurants and jazz clubs opening up. I’m thrilled that Eastern Market is booming. I love that Detroit has hosted a Superbowl and a World Series and a Final Four. That makes me proud because I’m a Detroiter.

It is wonderful that more young people are considering Midtown and Downtown as viable places to live. I really think that’s great. Unfortunately, the young people choosing to move into fancy lofts in Midtown instead of Royal Oak, Ferndale or Downtown Birmingham will not save the city. The City of Detroit is 144 square miles of land that is too big to manage. The solution to this problem will not be young suburbanites reclaiming the city blocks once inhabited by their parents and grandparents. It also won’t help the crime rate or the corruption that stains the city’s political arena. The old mentality that the City of Detroit doesn’t need or want white suburbanites coming into to “our City” is unfortunately still alive and well (just ask business leaders how difficult it is for them to get city contracts).

Rather than criticizing the suburbanites who choose to stay in their suburban homes, Barlow would make more sense if he thanked the suburbanites who work in the City of Detroit and come to the city for sports events, casinos, dining, and entertainment. It’s the money coming from the suburbs that’s going to spurn the renaissance for the City of Detroit. No matter how much grocery shopping and dry cleaning Barlow does in the city, suburbanites like Dan Gilbert and Peter Karmanos are the ones turning the city around. And even if they head north on the Lodge Freeway to go home after work each day, they are Detroiters. And so am I.

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

The Big D: Thoughts about Detroit

Two of my friends have recently announced they will be leaving Detroit. Both for better jobs elsewhere — in bigger, more desirable cities. One is originally from suburban Detroit and one is a transplant from the East Coast. One is a single, gay, observant Jewish man who seemed to have singlehandedly changed the narrative about homosexuality in the Jewish community. The other is a rabbi who started a family here in Detroit and left an indelible mark on the Jewish teen community who found him to be a charming, honest, creative and funny young teacher with a heart of gold. This is what we refer to as the brain drain — talented young Jewish professionals leaving Detroit.

The downsizing of the Detroit Jewish community along with the decreased housing rates, the mass unemployment, the auto industry’s woes, and the negative NBC documentary about the City of Detroit by ex-pat Chris Hansen. But other events have left me thinking more positively about Detroit and the future of our community.

JET Theatre – Palmer Park
Intermarriage
Conversation After
T’chiyah – some still live and work in city
Parents

JServe
Greening of Detroit
Downtown Synagogue
Lofts

Come Play Detroit

Backstage Pass

Israel Trip – D on shirts

Celebrity Shabbat Shalom Greetings

Sending out a weekly e-mail newsletter to friends has become a passion for Lisa Mark Lis.

Lis, a suburban Detroit-based community activist and philanthropist, in her Friday morning e-mail posts to friends and family not only wishes her readers a “Shabbat Shalom,” but she often has a celebrity extend their wishes, too.

Lisa Mark Lis videos U.S. Representatives Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Gary Peters.

Lis has videotaped such notable performers as James Taylor, Carole King, Paul Simon, Neil Sedaka and David Broza sending Shabbat best. Politicians as far up as President Obama, with first lady Michelle Obama, have offered “Shabbat Shalom” wishes on camera for Lis, as have U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the chair of the Democratic National Committee, and U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). Other celebs who have participated include “Millionaire Matchmaker” Patti Stanger and actor Wallace Shawn, who perhaps is best known for his role in “The Princess Bride.”

Lis isn’t shy about asking for a quick “Shabbat Shalom” greeting when running into a celebrity. When she told Marvin Hamlisch about some of the famous people who had recorded messages, the composer raised a glass of champagne to Lis’ camera phone and said, “I’m not Paul Simon and I’m not James Taylor. I’m Marvin Hamlisch and yes, I know how to say ‘Shabbat Shalom.’ “

She’s been sending her weekly greeting every Friday for nearly 2 1/2 years. She isn’t sure how many people are on her distribution list, but it includes friends and family from around the world, including a large contingent in Israel (her husband, Hannan, is a native Israeli).

Lis says she sends out the messages to wish as many people as possible a good weekend and to stay in touch with her connections.

“I do it to say ‘Shabbat Shalom,’ and then anything else I add is my soapbox,” Lis said. “I started to include the video messages of famous people saying ‘Shabbat Shalom’ as a fun addition to the e-mails. It makes people smile. Now people have come to expect them.”

Political views are included in some of her weekly messages. So are reminders to attend local fundraising events for causes she supports. A paragraph encouraging her readers to remember Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit during his captivity was a staple of each week’s e-mail message until his release last month. Every message includes wishes of “Happy Birthday” and “Mazel Tov” to her friends and family celebrating milestones in the upcoming week.

Lis plans to continue finding the chutzpah to ask celebs and politicians to utter those two Hebrew words for her camera phone. After all, it’s not every Friday that an e-mail arrives with a video of the leader of the free world wishing you a “Shabbat Shalom.”

President Barack Obama’s “Shabbat Shalom” Greeting

David Hasselhoff’s “Shabbat Shalom” Greeting

Cross-posted to JTA.org

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

Congregation Beit Kodesh

It’s not uncommon for a rabbi to write a eulogy for a human being, but writing a eulogy for a synagogue is fortunately not very common. Nevertheless, I’d like to express my sincere sadness that a local Conservative congregation is closing its doors today.

Yesterday marked the final Shabbat for Congregation Beit Kodesh, a small Conservative synagogue in Livonia, Michigan that began in 1958. As if this wasn’t already a sad weekend for the families of Congregation Beit Kodesh, news has circulated today that Cantor David Gutman, their beloved cantor emeritus has passed away. For several years after Beit Kodesh had retained its final full-time rabbi, Cantor Gutman held the congregation together and led all prayer services including the High Holidays.

At the end of the summer in 2005 while I was working as the associate director at the University of Michigan Hillel Foundation in Ann Arbor, I was contacted by the leaders of Beit Kodesh who invited me to meet with them in the synagogue’s library. The small group of long-time members explained the history of the congregation to me and their concern that with dwindling membership numbers they wouldn’t be able to keep their doors open much longer. Their building was owned by the Jewish Foundation of Metropolitan Detroit and they ran a small Sunday school program. They asked me if I would be willing to be their rabbinic adviser, serving as a consultant when questions came up, helping to raise some much needed funding in the community, and also providing direction to the Sunday School director. I wasn’t about to let a synagogue go out of business if I could help and so I agreed.

For the next three years (in my spare time) I wrote newsletter articles for the synagogue bulletin, taught the Sunday School families at holiday events, and helped promote the congregation in the community. The highlights during that time were a front-page story in the Detroit Jewish News and the renovation of the congregation’s sanctuary. In December 2008 I sent out a letter to my own contacts in the community explaining that this small congregation was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, but would soon have to close its doors because of financial reasons. Close to $10,000 trickled in to help Beit Kodesh stay alive for a little longer.

Finally, this month the congregation’s leaders recognized it was time to close. As I told the Detroit Jewish News, “The fact that this small congregation managed to keep its doors open as long as it did is a success story. That they eked out another five years makes them ‘The Little Shul that Could.'”

These days it’s not unusual for small Conservative synagogues to either close or merge with other congregations. The national trend is a response to the growth of Conservative synagogues during the expansion years and today’s difficult economic conditions. For a dwindling Conservative Jewish population here in Metro Detroit, there are too many congregations and they can’t support themselves as their membership rolls decline. The Beit Kodesh leadership should be proud of themselves for sticking around as long as they did in an area without a lot of Jewish people from which to draw.

The men and women of Congregation Beit Kodesh of Livonia, Michigan should be commended for their hard work in maintaining a Jewish presence in an area of Metro Detroit that hasn’t had a large Jewish population for many decades. It is sad whenever a synagogue closes, but Am Yisrael Chai… the Jewish people endures.

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

Sheldon Yellen – CEO and Mensch

Yesterday morning, we heard the words from the Torah portion Ki Tavo, which included the blessing that God shall make us the head and not the tail. This blessing is often repeated on Rosh Hashanah Eve and some even have the head of a fish on their holiday dinner table as a reminder of this blessing. According to the Torah, it is good to be the head.

That’s not always the case in the business world however. CEOs may have been blessed to be the “head” and not the “tail,” but it oftentimes seems like more of a curse. Over the past decade we’ve seen many disgraced CEOs who are not good examples of doing what’s right. We certainly wouldn’t consider the corporate heads of Enron, Tyco, Adelphia or WorldCom to be role models for our children.

There are exceptions. There are CEOs who demonstrate strong leadership skills along with ethical behavior. Several years ago I gave a sermon about Aaron Feuerstein, the CEO of Maden Mills, who after his entire plant burned down spent millions of his own money to keep all of his 3,000 employees on the payroll with full benefits for 6 months. Feuerstein consistently did the right thing even when it was difficult and he was faced with significant challenges. He claimed his strong ethical behavior and sense of justice as a corporate head were due to his faith and Talmud education.

Photo courtesy of Belfor

There is another CEO, who like Feuerstein, is striving to be a mensch and give back to his community. Sheldon Yellen, the CEO of Belfor is not your typical CEO. Tonight he’ll be at the Emmy Awards, where his episode of “Undercover Boss” is nominated for an Emmy. Sheldon went undercover in the CBS reality show “Undercover Boss” and received an education about how hard his employees work and how difficult it is for them to make ends meet. Yellen was so moved by all the lower-level employees he met that he eventually broke down and revealed himself as the CEO of the international disaster restoration company that is based in Michigan. The episode is up for an Emmy Award in the category of Outstanding Reality Program.

Yellen’s episode of “Undercover Boss” is a long shot to win an Emmy tonight against the other nominees including “Hoarders,” “Antiques Roadshow,” “Deadliest Catch,” Kathy Griffin’s show, and an episode of “MythBusters” guest starring President Obama. But while Yellen may not win an Emmy tonight, he is quite deserving of a mensch award.

In the episode of “Undercover Boss,” Sheldon demonstrated strong moral character and was able to show his emotions on national TV. Sheldon learned a great deal about his employees, their passion for the job, and how hard they work to support their families. He came off as an inspirational leader and the episode proved to be an important lesson for the upcoming Jewish holidays. I’m not the only rabbi who noticed that Sheldon’s experience of going undercover is a lesson for all of us as we approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Sheldon recently received a phone call from a Connecticut rabbi asking him to be the guest speaker at the community’s Selichot services this year. In his typical humble fashion, Sheldon couldn’t understand why the rabbi would want him to speak. However, he agreed and will be the featured speaker at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Bridgeport this Saturday night. He’ll speak about his journey from a challenging childhood in Detroit to becoming a wealthy businessman and philanthropist. He’ll also talk about system of values he draws on as a CEO.

Yellen and his three brothers were raised on Welfare by their mother in Detroit during the 1950s. Their father was a great person, but became sick and eventually developed an addiction to methadone after having nine stomach operations in the course of only two years. Growing up in an affluent Jewish community in which he and his brothers had to work from a very young age and with a father who was in prison (for dealing drugs) was difficult for Yellen. He told me that his mother didn’t have enough money to belong to a synagogue or send Sheldon to Hebrew School, but right before he turned thirteen she decided that it was important for him to have a bar mitzvah. An Orthodox synagogue agreed to let him have a bar mitzvah, but he didn’t have the Hebrew background. He was called to the Torah for his aliyah with the blessings transliterated in English on a piece of paper. The Orthodox men were expecting him to actually read from the Torah. It is a memory that has lasted with Yellen to this day.

In the past year Sheldon Yellen has made lasting contributions to his community. He bought a financially distressed private Jewish country club in order to keep its Jewish roots alive. He also funded a Toledo, Ohio-based yeshiva that had run out of living space for its young students. He was able to donate enough money so that the yeshiva could move into a new facility in suburban Detroit with enough room for both study and living quarters for its students. Yellen has also committed himself to Torah study at the local Detroit Kollel. The Jewish education he missed out on as a child is now one of his top priorities.

In addition to his philanthropy, Yellen has proved himself to be a very generous individual on a personal level. Recently, Michael Kenwood, a 39-year-old New Jersey volunteer EMT, was killed during Hurricane Irene while trying to save others’ lives. That hero’s sister-in-law is Amy Margolis of Birmingham, Michigan. When Amy and her family were unable to get a flight to New Jersey for her relative’s funeral because of the hurricane, they had no choice but to get in the car and drive. She was already on the road making the Michigan-New Jersey trek when she received a call from Sheldon Yellen who offered to meet them on the road and escort them to the airport where they would board one of his two private jets.

Margolis was quoted in the Detroit Jewish News saying that Yellen’s act of kindness makes him a mensch and an angel. “I didn’t do anything anybody else wouldn’t have done,” Sheldon Yellen said.

In an era when CEOs don’t always do the right thing and often act immorally, it is refreshing to see Sheldon Yellen demonstrate that a CEO can also be a mensch and a role model. While he might not win an Emmy Award tonight, he certainly has made a positive difference in his own company and in his community. He’s made a fortune restoring properties, but Sheldon Yellen might just have enough integrity and generosity to restore the reputation of our nation’s disgraced CEOs.

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