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The High School Reunion in the Age of Facebook

In addition to writing the “Jewish Techs” blog for The NY Jewish Week, I am now writing a monthly technology column for the Detroit Jewish News titled “Jews in the Digital Age”. My first column (published this week) looked at how Facebook has affected the high school reunion. Have you noticed a difference (positive or negative) in high school reunions in the past few years as Facebook has grown in popularity?

Originally published in the Detroit Jewish News:

The High School Reunion in the Age of Facebook
By Rabbi Jason Miller

We love to play Jewish geography, know who married whom, and keep up with the latest gossip (uh, I mean news) about our high school classmates. In the pre-Web 2.0 era that meant attending a high school reunion each decade to get reacquainted with everyone’s lives. Today, with just about every human being using Facebook, times have changed. What has Facebook done to the high school reunion?

Sharon Landau Levine, 57, of Oak Park attended her 40th high school reunion earlier this summer. The 1971 graduate of Oak Park High School made certain to attend her 10th, 20th and 30th reunions as well, but this summer’s reunion was different.

“I think Facebook enhanced this reunion a million times and a lot of my classmates would say the same thing,” she explained. “The planning of the reunion was much easier with Facebook and so was staying connected after the event. The planning committee launched a Facebook page to publicize the reunion and later added a second Facebook page that has become an ongoing discussion group.” In fact, after Levine’s reunion, posts began appearing on the Facebook page announcing regular get-togethers for classmates to catch up in person and for out-of-towners to join in using Skype – the video conferencing application.

Jason Klein, 38, of Bloomfield Hills used his Facebook clout to publicize his recent 20th reunion and encourage classmates to register for the event. The 1991 West Bloomfield High School graduate didn’t help in planning his 10th reunion, but when it came time for the 20th reunion Klein stepped forward.

“In today’s world with Facebook, how hard can it be?” Klein figured. “So we made the decision to solely market our reunion through Facebook. We had to hire a company for our 10th reunion, but the world was so different then. This time around, we said Facebook must be a more efficient way to do this. We’ll save money on postage and we won’t have to pay an external company.”

Through his company, in Troy, Klein solicited the help of his web developer to create a website that promoted the reunion and accepted paid registrations. Klein posted weekly updates on his personal Facebook profile and on the reunion’s Facebook page listing the names of classmates who had registered and encouraging other classmates to follow suit.

While Klein attributes the good attendance at the reunion to his Facebook publicity campaign, he also sees the downside of Facebook’s effect on the high school reunion. “I believe Facebook has killed the reunion. I’ve only been on Facebook for a few years, but I already knew a lot about my classmates before the reunion. It took away the surprise factor.”

Ken Bertin, 65, of West Bloomfield is no stranger to planning reunions. He’s planned six of them so far and sometimes for two classes at once. While he is quick to acknowledge that his cohort is not the most active demographic on Facebook, he concedes that the social networking site has been helpful in locating “lost” classmates. The Mumford High School alum recently planned a Hampton Junior High reunion too. “Facebook has given me contact with people so I get their email address and I can then contact them without paying for postage,” he said.

Bertin estimates that his “35-year-old daughter has 80% of her classmates on Facebook, whereas my class has 25-30%” However, recent studies have shown that the fastest growing demographic on Facebook is the over 60-years-old crowd. One major change Bertin has noticed is that now his classmates are expecting him to post photos from the reunion immediately after the event. “Many people who won’t be able to make the Hampton reunion contacted me asking if I would post photos from the event on Facebook,” he explained.

Some people have even felt coerced to join Facebook because there was no other form of communication leading up to their reunion. That was the case for John Kuderik, a CPA in Royal Oak, who was told that if he didn’t join Facebook he wouldn’t know anything about the plans for his reunion. He’s now connected to the classmates he hadn’t seen or heard from in over two decades, and he’s kept updated on their daily activities. But he’s not convinced that’s such a great thing.

Brad Feldman, of Farmington Hills, who recently attended his 20th Groves High School reunion, said that Facebook was a much discussed theme at the event. References to photos and other postings became topics of conversation at the reunion, and classmates posted photos from the reunion in the days following. He believes that Facebook activity might have kept some of his classmates, especially the out-of-towners, from attending since they felt they were already sufficiently updated on their classmates’ lives.

Facebook has had both positive and negative effects on the high school reunion. Some younger people believe that some of the excitement and nostalgia is gone from reunions because of all the reconnecting through social networking sites. Overall, however, Facebook has been helpful to reunion planners as a resource for promoting the event and locating classmates.

While Facebook is the killer app of our generation, no social networking website can replace the human interaction of a reunion. The face-to-face reconnections are the best form of social networking that exists.

Rabbi Jason Miller (@rabbijason) is a tech expert who writes about how information technology and social media are transforming the Jewish community. He writes the “Jewish Techs” blog for The NY Jewish Week and is president of Access Computer Technology (, based in West Bloomfield.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
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Va’etchanan – Loving God Through Stem Cell Research

One of the oddest of the 613 commandments offered in the Torah is found in this week’s Torah portion. On Shabbat morning, Jews all over the world will hear the words of Va’etchanan read aloud, including the commandment that we are to “to love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” Even young children pick up on the fact that it’s odd for God to command us to love God. After all, love is a feeling and commanding a human being to have an emotion seems strange.

However, there are ways for us to express our love for God that transcend our emotions. We can love God in physical ways as well. Our actions toward the betterment of people’s lives are a reflection of our loving relationship with the Divine. If we believe that God created humans and we were partners in the creation of the world, then we have a responsibility to help other humans be healthy and live long lives.

In his commentary on the Torah, Rashi explains that “with all your heart” means that we should serve God with all our powers for goodness, compassion and charity.

Last night I had the pleasure to learn from one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. Dr. Eva Feldman, of the Taubman Institute at the University of Michigan, is using her knowledge, talent and heart to change the world for the better.

Feldman, a soft-spoken professor of neurology at the University of Michigan’s School of Medicine, has made significant contributions to the fight against ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and Diabetes in a very short period of time. Last night, she explained to a living room full of some of Metro Detroit’s young adults how her clinical trial of a stem cell therapy for ALS has allowed dozens of patients to walk better.

A. Alfred Taubman, the Michigan shopping mall magnate and mega-philanthropist, helped create the Taubman Medical Research Institute with a $22 million endowment in 2007 and named Feldman as the institute’s first director in January 2008. (Taubman is the University of Michigan’s largest individual donor, with total giving of more than $142 million including $100 million specifically for innovative medical science.)

Three years ago, Dr. Feldman and the Taubman Institute educated citizens in Michigan about the importance of stem cell research in the study and treatment of disease, which led to voters approving a constitutional amendment lifting restrictions on stem cell research. As a result of the election, the Taubman Institute opened the first core facilities in Michigan to derive embryonic stem cell lines (one of the few in the nation).

Dr. Eva Feldman is a pioneer in this field of medical science, but she has also learned to be a quiet fighter. She has to fight against politicians who seek to make her research illegal and she has to fight against those who claim that what she is doing is unethical. Some even accuse her of playing God. There are many who cite their religious beliefs to criticize Dr. Feldman’s work, but I am convinced that her research comes from a place of deep compassion for humanity. Dr. Feldman is motivated to find ways to treat and cure disease. She does this through the power of modern scientific and medical innovation. She explained to our group that she is pro-life because she uses the leftover frozen embryos created for couples using IVF to have children. These embryos would have been destroyed in a garbage disposal, but Dr. Feldman is able to use these stem cell lines to learn more about genetic diseases, create treatments for suffering patients, and help find cures for such life-threatening conditions as cancer, ALS, and Diabetes.

We were all created in the image of God and we owe it to each other to use modern science and medical innovation to benefit the lives of God’s creatures. Using stem cells to fight (and potentially cure) diseases isn’t playing God, but it is a form of loving God. Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev taught that it can be determined if a person really loves God by the love they bear toward others. Dr. Eva Feldman strikes me as this type of person.

Shabbat Shalom.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
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(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
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Do It For Detroit

I was born 35 years ago today in Sinai Hospital on West Outer Drive in Downtown Detroit.

Detroit was born 310 years ago today.

Detroit hasn’t aged well in my lifetime. Sinai Hospital, which opened in 1953 to give Jewish doctors a place to practice, was the the central medical institution for the Jewish community. Even as the Jewish community migrated northwest into the Metro Detroit suburbs, Sinai remained the hospital of choice for Detroit’s Jews. Gradually this changed as it became increasingly more dangerous to venture Downtown and a handful of outstanding hospitals sprouted up in the suburbs with the Jewish doctors who received their training at Sinai. In 1999, Sinai merged with Grace Hospital and ceased being the Jewish hospital.

Jewish Detroiters had one less reason to head Downtown. The Jewish Federation building moved to the suburbs in the early 1990s. The synagogues had long since been sold to Black churches. The fancy restaurants that the Jewish community still flocked to had shuttered. With the exception of a Tigers baseball game or a Red Wings hockey game or the occasional concert or theater performance, there were little reasons for Jewish Detroiters living in the suburbs to head Downtown.

But that has changed. Detroit is now seeing a renaissance. The first attempt at a renaissance in Detroit was in 1977 when the Renaissance Building was erected as the great hope for the Motor City to turn around following the race riots of the late 1960s. That plan never materialized. However, the time has finally come for Detroit’s revival.

Here are a few of the great things happening in Detroit that are contributing to its revitalization:

Moishe House – On June 1, Detroit opened its first Moishe House in Downtown. The mission of Moishe House is to provide meaningful Jewish experiences for young adults around the world by supporting leaders in their 20s as they create vibrant home-based Jewish communities. Detroit’s new home for a handful of entrepreneurial Jewish young adults was funded by local Jewish philanthropists including A. Alfred Taubman, Max Fisher’s daughter Jane Sherman, the Seligman family, Bill and Madge Berman, and the Norman and Esther Allan Foundation. The young people living in the house, including Community Next’s Jordan Wolfe and Come Play Detroit’s Justin Jacobs, are pioneers. Like the young, idealistic pioneers who immigrated to Israel to resettle the land, these visionaries are taking the lead in Detroit.

Come Play Detroit – Founded by Justin Jacobs, Come Play Detroit began as a way for Metro Detroiters to play sports together in leagues. What began as a basketball league in the suburbs has morphed into a way to help bring excitement to the Downtown area. Softball and kickball leagues in Detroit, parties, and an attempt at setting a Guinness Book World Record for the largest dodgeball game are just some of Justin’s ideas that have encouraged Metro Detroit’s young adult Jewish population to venture Downtown.

Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue – Detroit’s only surviving synagogue is a Conservative congregation on Griswold Street in the center of the city that until recently functioned as the only minyan where Jewish businessmen could go for afternoon services if they had to say Kaddish (the mourner’s prayer). Its story of rebirth is an interesting one. Young, passionate Jews have saved the building from falling into disrepair and becoming a slum building. Its new mission is to rediscover Jewish life in Detroit. The synagogue no longer functions as a traditional Conservative synagogue, but more of a Jewish center of social justice programming and cultural activities offering Shabbat services and luncheons, film nights, classes, and dance parties.

LiveWorkDetroit – Detroit’s business leaders are the city’s biggest cheerleaders for a renaissance. The Michigan Economic Development Corporation includes many Jewish businessmen who are at the forefront of creating new jobs for young people in an effort to get them to stay in Detroit. A Crain’s Detroit Business article included several Jewish leaders in its list of the most powerful people in Detroit: Dan Gilbert of Quicken Loans, Michigan Republican Party Chairman Bobby Schostak, and Jewish Federation President Michael Horowitz. Jewish businessmen like Gilbert, Schostak, Stanley Frankel and Gary Torgow are working behind-the-scenes to retain Jewish talent and help bring back the young Jews who fled Detroit. With the full support of Detroit’s Mayor Dave Bing, Dan Gilbert has teamed up with Josh Linkner, Magic Johnson and Brian Hermelin to invest in new companies that will help revitalize Detroit.

My birthday wish today is that the City of Detroit, which shares its birthday with me, will become the city that we dream it can be. I hope the Motor City returns to a vibrant urban center that we can be proud of. It is exciting that so many young Jewish Detroiters are finally saying “Do It For Detroit.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
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The Magic Returns to Motown

Dan Gilbert, Brian Hermelin and Josh Linkner are three Jewish entrepreneurs in Metro Detroit who have teamed up to invest some venture capital into companies in an effort to rebuild the City of Detroit. Gilbert is the founder and chairman of Quicken Loans, which is now headquartered in Downtown Detroit where he has been buying up business real estate properties in the city lately.

Each of these three men has a great deal of experience in the business world. In addition to owning Quicken Loans, Gilbert (in photo) also is the majority owner of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers. Hermelin was CEO of Active Aero Group, an on-demand airplane charter company, and also founded Rockbridge Growth Equity with Gilbert. Hermelin’s late father David, an insurance tycoon, was one of the owners of the Palace of Auburn Hills where the Detroit Pistons play, and also the Ambassador to Norway before his death in 2000. Linkner considers himself a serial entrepreneur having started a couple of companies before launching ePrize in 1999. Gilbert and Hermelin, along with other Detroit businessmen, invested $32 million into ePrize through Rockbridge in 2006.

Now Gilbert, Hermelin and Linkner have created Detroit Venture Partners in an effort to infuse capital into businesses that are willing to help kickstart Gilbert’s dream of a renaissance in the City of Detroit.

What these three venture capitalists (who are all over 40, white and Jewish) seem to be missing is an African American businessman who is already beloved in Detroit and has a reputation for creating a financial renaissance in a predominantly African American neighborhood (think Harlem, NY).

Enter Earvin “Magic” Johnson. The former NBA great tweeted to his Twitter followers last night that he’ll be in Detroit to make a big announcement tomorrow. When I read Magic Johnson’s tweet I started thinking about what this announcement would be. The Detroit Pistons have already been acquired by Tom Gores so I didn’t think it was basketball related. And then this morning I awoke to an email from Josh Linkner (CEO of Detroit Venture Partners) announcing a “Magic” announcement. Linkner wrote, “Super exciting news for the City of Detroit, the tech community, and certainly myself personally. If you can, please watch it unfold live with streaming video at today, July 21, at 10:00am ET. It should be a powerful media conference announcing breaking news that I know you will enjoy.”

The AP seems to have picked up on the story too. An article published this morning says:

Quicken Loans founder and chairman Dan Gilbert has called a news conference to announce an addition to a venture capital company focused on rebuilding Detroit, and a tweet from ex-NBA star Magic Johnson suggests it’s him. Gilbert’s spokespeople say a sports legend and Hall-of-Famer will be introduced Thursday as the newest member of Detroit Venture Partners. They and Johnson’s staff wouldn’t confirm Wednesday that it’s the former basketball player.

But Johnson posted Twitter messages Wednesday night saying he’ll “be making a big announcement in Detroit” on Thursday and looks forward to helping put “people back to work” in his home state of Michigan.

The early-stage venture capital business focuses on entrepreneurship and technology to create jobs in Detroit.

This is great news for Detroit. I dream that my children will have a vibrant downtown area in Detroit like my parents had before the riots in the late 1960s. Hopefully Magic Johnson will bring his magic to Detroit — the same magic that won championships for the Los Angeles Lakers and helped turn Harlem around. Here’s hoping it works.

UPDATE: Josh Linkner introduced Magic Johnson at this morning’s press conference. Johnson said he is making good on a promise he made to Mayor Dave Bing during his campaign for mayor of the City of Detroit by investing some of his millions into economic growth in the city. johnson choked back tears as he introduced Mayor Bing, a fellow Hall of Fame point guard.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
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Barry Bremen – The Great Impostor

Trivia question: Who accepted the 1985 Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actress in a television drama?

If you answered a 6-foot-4 Jewish insurance salesman from West Bloomfield, Michigan then you’ve obviously heard of Barry Bremen. Barry Bremen, known as “The Great Impostor” died yesterday from esophageal cancer on his 64th birthday.

Growing up in Metro Detroit, I watched Barry Bremen’s antics with delight. For native Detroiters like my parents, Barry Bremen was a kid they grew up with in the old neighborhood and saw in the hallways of Mumford High School. But for me, he was a local guy who was willing to get arrested if it meant being in the spotlight and making people laugh. In high school I remember asking Barry’s son Adam, who is my age, what he thinks of his father’s role as “The Great Impostor.” Adam, who uses a wheelchair and is himself an inspiration to so many, replied that his father does this because it makes people smile.

Barry flew out to Pasadena, California for the 1985 Emmy Awards. When Peter Graves announced the Best Supporting Actress award goes to Hill Street Blues actress Betty Thomas, Barry Bremen suddenly stood from his front-row seat and accepted the award on Thomas’ behalf from an obviously confused Peter Graves. Here’s the video of that unique moment in award show history:

Barry Bremen was known as “The Great Impostor.” Some of his stunts included wearing a Kansas City Kings uniform and getting onto the floor during pre-game warmups for the 1979 NBA All-Star game which took place just outside of Detroit at the Pontiac Silverdome. Barry must have liked NBA All-Games because he did it again wearing a Houston Rockets uniform at the 1981 All-Star game in the Richfield (Ohio) Coliseum. What might be most impressive is that on three occasions, he played in the U.S. Open practice rounds. Barry was a great golfer (he had a 7 handicap), but most great golfers still don’t get to play a round of golf with the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Fred Couples and Curtis Strange.

Golf Magazine even reported on Barry’s appearance in a practice round with Fred Couples, Jay Haas and Curtis Strange at the 1985 U.S. Open at the Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

Scouting the course early in the week, Breman was introduced to Couples, then an up-and-coming pro. “I had a great chuckle with him,” Couples said. “[Bremen] said, ‘Obviously, I can’t tee off with you, but I’ll find you out there.'” A friend of Bremen’s — an Oakland Hills member — smuggled Bremen’s clubs and caddie into the club. Bremen, wearing a disguise and claiming to be a qualifier named Mark Diamond, went in search of Couples, who was playing a practice round with Haas.

Couples remembers: “He comes out of the shrubs on the second hole and hits this tee shot that buzzes the spectators. . . He had this big wig on and a visor and looked a little out of place, but we didn’t care. He just did his deal and had a great time. It didn’t take long for people to scream out, ‘Who is that guy?’ I mean the cat was out of the bag after a couple holes, but we didn’t get in trouble and no one came out to get him.”

Perhaps Barry’s most outrageous impostor moment was in 1980 when he dressed as a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader and managed to shake pom-pons on the sidelines of a Dallas Cowboys game before being escorted in handcuffs out of the stadium by police.

People Magazine ran a feature article about Barry Bremen after the Dallas incident:

His big dream, though, was to pass as a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader. So starting last September Barry shed 23 pounds, practiced drag routines with his wife, had a replica Cheerleader uniform custom-made, shaved his legs and bankrolled the project with some $1,200 of his own money.

Then he made his move in last month’s Dallas-Washington game. Bursting onto the sidelines in boots, hot pants, falsies and a blond wig, he got out only one cheer (for posterity, it was “Go Dallas!”) before Cowboy security had him hogtied and handcuffed. “Perverted,” team vice-president Joseph A. Bailey dubbed his act, and Bremen says when he called the Cheerleaders’ manager to explain, she could only sputter: “You are not a female.”

Previous targets have laughed off Bremen’s antics, but the Cowboys have smacked him with a $5,000 lawsuit for trespassing and creating a nuisance, and they want him banned from Cowboy games for life. To Bremen, that is very stuffy. “What are they going to do, put ‘Wanted’ posters at every entrance?” he asks. “This is ridiculous. I was just having fun.”

Barry’s prank at the Emmy Awards and posing as a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader were funny, but my favorite Barry Bremen prank came when I was only a few years old. Something odd happened in the 1979 Major League Baseball All-Star Game in Seattle. Future Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson left his New York Yankees uniform back in New York. So, at the beginning of the game he had no choice but to put on a Seattle Mariners uniform. So, while Reggie Jackson — an actual Yankees player — wasn’t wearing a Yankees uniform there was this tall Jewish guy from Detroit on the field who WAS wearing a Yankees uniform.

Barry Bremen, a devout sports fan, made it down to the field (with the help of legendary announcer Dick Schapp and George Brett) and was desperately trying to sneak into the group picture of Baseball All-Stars. And it was a famous picture with such future Hall of Famers as Reggie Jackson (in a Mariners uniform!), Joe Morgan, George Brett, Mike Schmidt, Gaylord Perry, Dave Winfield, Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan, Carl Yastrzemski, Lou Brock, and Tommy Lasorda. The photo would also include American League manager Bob Lemon, who was already in Cooperstown at that point, as well as Pete Rose who has yet to be admitted to the Hall of Fame because he bet on baseball.

After the event in Dallas, Barry was asked to give his advice to other impostors. He said, “Don’t do it. It’s against the law. Stay away. This is my act.” And in 2005, Barry was asked if he’s retiring from his role as “The Great Imposter” and he replied, “You’ve heard of the Taser gun? You’ve heard of 9/11? They don’t ask questions anymore.”

When the Super Bowl was in Detroit in 2006, Detroit News writer Neil Rubin called Barry Bremen to see what he had planned for the big event. Barry whispered into the phone, “I’ve been in the stadium for four months. I brought enough food and water. I bought the uniform of every team with a chance to go into the playoffs.” Then Bremen, who was 58 at the time, admitted that he was comfortable in his Scottsdale, Arizona winter home playing golf and watching the game on TV.

Several years ago, Barry was featured in a chapter of a book on sports mascots. He autographed his chapter for me and it has become a keepsake that I treasure. Barry could have been just another tall, Jewish guy who raises great kids, is a successful businessman, and has a great golf game. But instead, he was willing to take some risks and do some pretty zany things that others wouldn’t even dream of ever doing. I respect that. A lot. He made us laugh and that was his ultimate goal.

Barry’s wife Margo had a wonderful quote in that People Magazine article back in 1980. She said, Barry is “fulfilling a grand fantasy to be in the limelight. He feels if you have no guts you have no glory in your life.”

May the memories of Barry Bremen be for blessings to his family, friends and fans.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
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Delta Adopts Saudi Arabian Airlines No Jew Policy

For a long time in Michigan, Northwest Airlines had its hub at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. That meant an essential monopoly on domestic flights in and out of Detroit. A few years ago Delta Airlines took over Northwest Airlines and now the vast majority of domestic flights at Detroit Metro are operated by Delta. That fact makes it especially troubling to learn that Delta will add Saudi Arabian Airlines to its SkyTeam Alliance of partnering companies and would require the Delta to ban Jews and holders of Israeli passports from boarding flights to Saudi Arabia. The partnership was originally announced by Delta Airlines in a press release on January 10, 2011.

World Net Daily reported that this issue was “first was presented to Congress, the public and others by talk radio host and former U.S. Rep. Fred Grandy, whose own battle against discrimination was documented when his former radio station demanded he tone down criticism of Islam on his program. He then left the station.”

The article included correspondence from Kathy M. Johnston, Delta’s coordinator of Customer Care, explaining that Delta does not discriminate nor condone discrimination against any protected class of passenger in regards to age, race, nationality, religion, or gender. However, she stated , Delta must comply with all applicable laws in every country it serves. That means that if the Saudi government denies Jews from entering its country and Delta brings them there on its flight they can be fined.

The issue here is one of principle. Delta isn’t being forced to include Saudi Arabian Airlines into its Sky Team Alliance. In fact, Delta could stand on principle and refuse to include Saudi Arabian Airlines based on its discriminatory policy. No, it’s not Delta’s fault that the Saudi government is anti-Semitic, but it doesn’t have to go along with it. It’s as if the Saudis are telling Delta that when it comes to Jewish passengers its name should become an acronym: “Don’t Even Let Them Aboard.”

I know I’m not the only one who finds it troubling that Delta would go along with Saudi Arabia’s policy of not allowing Jews on their flights. While I’m not planning a vacation to Riyadh any time soon, I would have a hard time flying with Delta knowing they are collaborating with the discriminatory government of Saudi Arabia.

The American Center for Law and Justice has already taken up this issue and I have no doubt that organizations like the Anti-Defamation League will not be far behind. I fly Delta a lot, both domestically and internationally. In fact, I’ve flown Delta flights to and from Israel twice in the past four years. Each time I arrive to my destination with Delta, I hear a flight attendant thank the passengers by saying, “We know you have a choice when you fly so thank you for choosing Delta.” However, that’s not entirely true. Here in Michigan, we often don’t have much of a choice when we fly. It’s usually Delta or nothing.

I have no doubt that this matter will not quietly go away. The Jewish community will not feel comfortable flying Delta knowing about its new association with Saudi Arabian Airlines.

Clarification: Delta Airlines is not changing any policies. Delta claims they do not discriminate and I concur. The issue here is that they have welcomed an airline (Saudi Arabian Airlines) that does discriminate into their global partnership (SkyTeam). Finally, Delta does not own the Sky Team alliance. SkyTeam is a global airline alliance (founded by Delta Airlines and a few other airlines) that provides customers from member airlines access to an extensive global network with more destinations, more frequencies and more connectivity.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
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Dr. Jack Kevorkian from a Jewish Perspective

It’s been a week since “Dr. Death,” Jack Kevorkian, died of natural causes. A local celebrity in Michigan, Kevorkian became synonymous with physician-assisted suicide in the 1990s. He also made his long-time attorney, Geoffrey Feiger, into a local celebrity. Growing up in Metro Detroit with Kevorkian’s antics on the television news each day meant that “euthanasia” was a well-known term to my peers and me.

Kevorkian’s death has once again revived the ethical conversation surrounding physician-assisted suicide. My friend and classmate, Rabbi Leonard Sharzer, MD, was recently interviewed by The Jewish Week about the Jewish perspective of Physician-Assisted Suicide. The interview was published just days before Kevorkian’s death.

Rabbi Sharzer, a retired plastic surgeon in New York, was interviewed because a new documentary is airing on HBO. “How to Die in Oregon” takes a powerful look at Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, a 1994 measure allowing physician-assisted suicide and the first law of its kind, by telling the stories of several people who died under the act. Rabbi Sharzer writes and lectures on bio-medical ethics at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies. The following are questions he answered on the subject of physician assisted suicide:

Q: What, if anything, do Jewish texts and modern-day responsa say about physician-assisted suicide?

A: Normative Judaism, as a general matter, is opposed to suicide, although there have been exceptions, as in the case of matrydom. Jewish legal writing about physician-assisted suicide is quite new, as discussion of the phenomenon itself is recent. The predominant opinion is negative. There’s the notion that human life is a gift from God, and it’s up to God to decide when it ends, not human beings. … Judaism sees no intrinsic value to suffering at the end of life and encourages physicians to use all means at their disposal to relieve suffering — but not to actually end a life.

Do the Torah and other Jewish texts include examples of people choosing to end their lives rather experiencing an agonizing or painful death?

The classic example in the Bible is the case of King Saul, who found himself wounded in battle and surrounded by the enemy. Fearing torture and degradation, he took his own life. The rabbis go to some length to justify Saul’s action while saying it’s an exception that shouldn’t be considered the rule.

Did seeing the documentary influence your own views on the subject?

I’d say that seeing the movie gave me a much better understanding of the human condition in which this develops. It gives a human face to the issue. It’s not my position to be judgmental of anyone who makes that decision, even if I wouldn’t make that decision for myself and wouldn’t counsel it.

What’s the role of spiritual leaders, such as rabbis, in such decisions? Is it the cleric’s place to veto a decision like this and, if so, under what circumstances?

Spiritual leaders, clergy and pastoral caregivers have in role in help both patients and their families deal with these very difficult questions. I don’t think it’s about a veto. Rather, it’s about helping people who are seeking guidance from within a religious tradition. … It’s clearly a feature of our times that people want to control all aspects of their life and health. The spiritual position is that sometimes you can’t. The contribution of spiritual and religious leaders is to help them deal with areas over which they aren’t able to exert control.

In a statement released by the filmmaker, he says that, surprisingly, the lessons he learned from making the documentary have more to do with living than with dying. What does an issue like this — and, more generally, the idea of death — teach us about life?

One of the lessons is that we don’t live this life as isolated individuals. We live this life as part of a family, as part of a community. We want to live out a sense of values not only for ourselves, but for our families and communities, and impart [our values] to the ones who come after us.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
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Rep. Dave Camp Should Force Staffer to Grant Ex-Wife a Jewish Divorce

On the final day of the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, thousands of conference attendees descend on Capitol Hill to lobby members of Congress on issues important to the State of Israel. A few years ago I joined other pro-Israel Michiganders and lobbied Representative Dave Camp. The congressman wasn’t available to meet with us and left an ill-prepared staffer to answer our questions and try to assure us of his boss’s support of the Jewish State. Since Dave Camp represents the 4th Congressional District of Michigan (an area pretty far north of where I live), I didn’t think I’d find myself lobbying him on any other issues in the future. And I surely never thought I’d lobby him on the issue of an agunah — the case of a Jewish woman whose ex-husband refuses to grant her a get (a Jewish bill of divorce).

Rep. Dave Camp becomes the chairman of House Ways and Means Committee tomorrow taking over from Rep. Sandy Levin, and The New York Times reports that there is already controversy surrounding his office. Aharon Friedman, a 34-year-old tax counsel for the Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee is an Orthodox Jew who is refusing to give his wife, Tamar Epstein, 27, a get.

The NY Times says that Friedman “finds himself scrutinized in the Jewish press, condemned by important rabbis, and attacked in a YouTube video showing about 200 people protesting outside his Silver Spring, Md., apartment on Dec. 19…The Friedman case has become emblematic of a torturous issue in which only a husband can ‘give’ a get. While Jewish communities have historically pressured obstinate husbands to give gets, this was a very rare case of seeking to shame the husband in the secular world.”

One rabbi wrote to the House Ways and Means Committee asking that he lean on Aharon Friedman to grant the Jewish divorce. The couple has been civilly divorced since April and share custody of their daughter, but they are still married according to Jewish law. Without the get neither one of them is permitted to remarry within the faith. Tamar Friedman is considered an agunah, or chained woman until Aharon presents her with a get.

I implore Representative Dave Camp to compel Aharon Friedman, his staff member, to do the ethical thing and grant his wife a Jewish bill of divorce. I’m sure that Rep. Camp wants everyone who works with him to be of moral character. On his first day as the chairman of this important committee tomorrow, I hope Dave Camp will take Aharon Goldstein aside and tell him what he needs to do to “right this wrong.” This matter has nothing to do with the Committee on Ways and Means or the 4th District of Michigan, but it has a lot to do with character and hopefully the leadership of the 112th Congress will make that a top priority.

As Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld told The New York Times, “I don’t think the Messiah can come, as long as there is one agunah in the world.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Detroit Football Jewish Michigan Sports

Is Football for Jewish Kids?

I often joke that the point of a bar mitzvah is to celebrate the Jewish boy’s realization that he’ll have a much better chance of owning the professional team than playing on it. It’s tongue-in-cheek humor, but the fact remains that there are many more Jewish professional sports team owners than Jewish players.

In Detroit, it might be more accurate to say that Jewish boys who want to play pro sports grow up to be sports reporters on the evening news. Growing up in Detroit, the sports directors of all three major local networks were Jewish men. Eli Zaret on CBS-2, Bernie Smilovitz on NBC-4 and Don Shane on ABC-7.

Eli Zaret is now a reporter for the Detroit Pistons. Bernie left Detroit for New York in the mid-90s only to return two years later. And Don Shane came to Channel 7 in 1989 and never left. I was thinking about the stereotype that Jewish boys don’t play football last night as I watched the late-night news broadcast on Detroit’s ABC affiliate as they replayed Don getting tackled on the sidelines by University of Michigan quarterback Tate Forcier in yesterday’s U-M win.

I got to know Don pretty well in the early 90’s when I was a babysitter for his two children. Don lives across the street from my uncle and aunt, and in high school I would play basketball with the guys in that neighborhood at my Uncle’s house, including Don, on Saturday afternoons. Later that night, I would babysit for my cousins or Don’s kids. I loved talking sports with Don because he not only knew everything there was to know about local Detroit sports, he was often the first to know.

In all fairness to Don, the hard hit he took on the sidelines yesterday as he prepared his post-game report had nothing to do with whether Jewish boys play football or not. He was standing innocently on the sidelines when Forcier was forced out of bounds and was pushed directly into him.  He suffered a split lip that required four stitches and a pretty nasty headache (reports confirmed it wasn’t a concussion). Impressively, Don managed to conduct his post-game interviews and even shared some laughs with Forcier.

So, even for those Jewish boys who make the conscious decision to become a sportscaster instead of a football player, remember that sometimes reporting from the sidelines can be a full-contact sport too.

And while I never played high school football (although as a 6-foot-3, 220 pound guy I was desperately recruited each year by the coach), I am impressed by this all-Jewish San Diego high school football team making headlines. The JTA article about this Jewish day school’s football team includes this great question: “Was the stereotype of the Jewish mom or dad, too fearful of their child getting hurt to let them go out for football, turning end over end on its way out of bounds?”

Maybe a few of these Jewish kids will forgo a career as the team owner or sports broadcaster and actually wear a uniform for a pro team some day.

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