Uncle As Father Figure

The past three Father’s Days have been difficult days for me. I’ve spent each of them with my dad, but I missed my beloved uncle in a real and painful way. My Uncle Jerry died after a very brief battle with Pancreatic cancer in February 2009.

As this year’s Father’s Day approached I thought about the father figure role that many uncles play in their nephew’s life. I have a wonderful relationship with my own dad, but my relationship with my uncle was different. He served as a different type of role model for me than my father. My uncle was the one to take me to hockey games and for a ride on the back of a motorcycle. We went on day-long excursions by snowmobile or by boat. It was my uncle who taught me to appreciate an ice cold beer on a hot summer day and a fine glass of wine with good friends as the sun was setting.

While my father taught me to drive, it was my uncle who taught me to drive aggressively and strategically and how to appreciate a luxury automobile. Uncle Jerry showed me by example that hard work pays off. He also demonstrated the value of a good vacation away from the office and the importance of enjoying time with the family.

My uncle had his own children, but he still made time for me and his other nephews and nieces. Just as there is a significant role for a Savvy Auntie to play in one’s life, there is a significant role for a devoted uncle too. The uncle is an unsung hero in society.

As the fond memories of my Uncle Jerry were floating in my head and I was considering the ways he served as a complementary (not surrogate) father figure in my life I was called upon to officiate at a funeral. On the phone, the local funeral director explained that the family was not affiliated with any congregation. He also told me that the contact person would be the deceased’s niece, but that she and her siblings should be treated as the grieving children.

When I arrived at the house to meet with the family in preparation for the funeral the following day, I learned that the man I was to eulogize played a substantial role in the lives of his nieces and nephew. While his own father died when he was just a young boy and he grew up without a father figure in his life, he filled that role outstandingly for his own two children as well as for his three nieces and nephew.

I listened to the stories flying at me from all directions about a man who shed the “Uncle” title and became “Dad” to four children when their own parents were no longer available. I considered how many uncles fill this role for their nieces and nephews. Some uncles, like the man who just departed this earth, step up and take on a father figure role when the need arises, and do so with love and affection. Others, like my own uncle, serve as a father figure in ways that complement the role of a biological father.

Father’s Day was one of my uncle’s favorite days of the year. He loved to open his house to the family and barbeque for us. As everyone was finishing dessert he’d motion to me to go outside and we’d play catch until it was too dark to see the ball. Sometimes I would just watch him hit tennis balls with a golf driver to his eager Golden Retriever. Growing up, I now realize that Father’s Day for me was also a day to honor my uncle and the impact he had on my development.

Just as Melanie Notkin has reframed our understanding of aunthood, I encourage everyone to take into account the special role that uncle’s play in the lives of their nieces and nephews. On this Father’s Day, I will once again pay tribute to the memory of my uncle. Through his actions he was influential in the way I now serve as a father to my own children. While I am not yet an uncle, I know that when the time comes I will look to Uncle Jerry as a role model. His legacy will inspire me to take a father figure approach to being an uncle. In a big way.

Cross-posted to SavvyAuntie.com

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

Harold Grinspoon Invests in Jewish Families Through PJ Library

Jewish philanthropists of the “mega” variety are always looking for the best ways to use their fortune to benefit the Jewish community. Many of them have set up philanthropic foundations and have paid professionals advising them how to realize the best return on investment for their substantial donations.

In the past two decades, billionaire donors like Les Wexner, Michael Steinhardt, Lynn Schusterman, Sheldon Adelson and the Bronfman family have infused millions of dollars into free 10-day trips to Israel for young adults (Birthright Israel), entrepreneurial programs for rabbis and Jewish educators (STAR Foundation), Jewish teen (BBYO) and college campus initiatives (Hillel), Shabbat enrichment endeavors for synagogues (SYNaplex), and educational programs for adults (Wexner Heritage).
The mega donor whose large scale creative giving has impressed me the most over the past few years is an unassuming, Jewish immigrant who made his fortune in the real estate market. Harold Grinspoon established his foundation to promote Jewish life among young people, adults and families. To date, he’s infused north of $110 million into the Jewish community and has done so without much fanfare.

Harold Grinspoon recognized early on that Jewish summer camps for children have the ability to provide a 24/7 enriching Jewish experience to the future leaders of the Jewish people. While he had the ability to donate millions to Jewish camps to afford underprivileged children with a Jewish camp experience, he went several steps further.

With Harold Grinspoon at Camp Maas in Ortonville, Michigan.

Through the Grinspoon Institute for Jewish Philanthropy, Harold Grinspoon set out to enhance the long-term effectiveness of nonprofit overnight camps. Rather than simply sending more Jewish children to summer camp Grinspoon was determined to improve the camps through intensive leadership training of the staff (young future leaders), enhancing the internal philanthropic environment of each camp, and making capital improvements to allow for more and better programming. Dozens of Jewish camps around North America share their success stories on the Grinspoon Institute’s website.

While large philanthropic giving to Jewish summer camps is not a novel idea, the way Harold Grinspoon leveraged his investments to Jewish camps was creative and will have lasting positive implications for the Jewish community.

But Jewish camping is not Grinspoon’s only philanthropic love. In February 2010 I read an article in the Boston Globe by Eric Moskowitz about Grinspoon’s PJ Library that had just given away its 2 millionth book. I made some notes on a hard copy of the article and planned to write about it on this blog. Somehow the article got filed away and I missed the opportunity.

And then I received an email message yesterday from close friends Cindy and Neil Goldstein of Livingston, NJ. We became friends with the Goldsteins when my wife and I lived in Caldwell, NJ during the final three years of my rabbinical training at the Jewish Theological Seminary. We had our first children just days apart and have remained good friends since.

The Goldstein’s email message explained that Harold Grinspoon arrived at their home on Wednesday to present their daughter Jordana with the PJ Library’s 3 millionth book, Noah’s Swim-a-Thon. I immediately pulled that Boston Globe article out of my file cabinet.

PJ Library Founder Harold Grinspoon reads to Jordana Goldstein at her home in Livingston, NJ

Harold Grinspoon’s creative philanthropic idea for the PJ Library, which distributes free Jewish-themed books and music CDs to children all over North America each month, came from none other than Dolly Parton. Grinspoon explained to the Boston Globe, “I’m in the car one day listening to public radio and I hear that a gal by the name of Dolly Parton is giving away free books to disadvantaged families.”

Grinspoon, who is dyslexic, had not read to his own children when they were young, but he had just been on a flight where he was captivated by a father comforting a crying child with a book. He immediately called Parton’s Imagination Library and arranged to sponsor her program in the Springfield area, where he lives. 

That same spring, he attended a Passover Seder at his son’s house. Around the table in Weston, Grinspoon watched his daughter-in-law give picture books with Jewish themes to each guest. “He was just mesmerized,’’ said Winnie Sandler Grinspoon, his daughter-in-law. “He didn’t even know [such books] existed.’’ 

Grinspoon was surprised by the quality of the stories and illustrations, and more amazed still that his adolescent grandchildren cherished these books from their childhood as much as titles like “Goodnight Moon.’’

He gave his daughter-in-law $500 and told her to buy him a crate of her favorites, which he devoured. Then he dispatched a young assistant to consult with Jewish educators and institutions, with the Imagination Library and packing companies, and present him a report about whether – and how – a Jewish version of Parton’s project might work.

Grinspoon’s PJ Library now sends over 100,000 free books and music to families each month (that figure was only 200 per month in 2005). The program has grown to include, Sifirat Pajama b’America, a division that sends children’s books in Hebrew to Israeli families in North America. Not only have young children and their families been positively affected by Grinspoon’s amazing generosity, but the book publishing industry has seen tremendous growth through the purchasing and distributing of 3 million books in recent years.

Grinspoon reflected at the Goldstein’s home, “While we are thrilled to be delivering the 3 millionth PJ Library book, we won’t rest until we know that every family with Jewish children who wants these wonderful Jewish books is able to receive them… We look forward to delivering the 4 millionth book and 5 millionth book and beyond — and knowing that all across North America and around the world, parents and children are snuggling around PJ Library books, and having special conversations in which parents are transmitting our heritage to the next generation.”

Jewish camping experiences are enduring and have lasting effects on our Jewish community. Those experiences take place outside of the home. Harold Grinspoon’s PJ Library invests in Jewish families by giving parents and grandparents the resources to educate children in the home.

Harold Grinspoon’s dyslexia precluded him from reading to his own children when they were young. As a father who has read dozens and dozens of PJ Library books to my children at bedtime over the past eight years I can honestly say that Harold Grinspoon’s generosity is having a real and meaningful effect. In a way, Harold Grinspoon is now reading to over 100,000 children each month.

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

Jewish Summer Camp and Helicopter Parents

Originally published on JTA.org

Parents find new benefit to Jewish camp: Freedom from themselves

When she took the stage recently before an audience of 400 Jewish camping enthusiasts, Lenore Skenazy wasted no time in addressing why she is known as “America’s Worst Mom.”

The author of a 2008 column in The New York Times describing how she let her 9-year-old son ride the subway home alone just to see if he could do it, Skenazy has been the subject of sharp criticism for her parenting philosophy. But Skenazy is fighting back, waging war against what she describes as overzealous and anxiety-ridden helicopter parents who hover over their children rather than letting them be “free-range kids,” affording them the freedom to make mistakes.

She even wrote a book on the subject: “Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry.”

Lenore Skenazy at the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Leaders Assembly

“Sending your kids to camp is a fantastic way to give kids back their freedom,” Skenazy said at the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s recent Leaders Assembly in this central New Jersey city. “Homesickness is a good thing. It shows they appreciate their home. So, thank God for camp.”

Summer camp has emerged as one of the most promising tools in the struggle to ensure Jewish continuity in an era when Jews face more choice and fewer barriers to assimilation. A recent study by the sociologist Steven M. Cohen commissioned by the FJC shows that campers grow up to be connected to Jewish life and identify proudly within the Jewish community as adults.

“The analysis indicates that they bring, first of all, an increased inclination to practice Jewish behaviors in their lives, from Shabbat candle lighting to using Jewish websites, and to appreciate the value of Jewish charity,” Cohen concludes in the study. “Secondly, they bring an increased inclination to value and seek out the experience of Jewish community, whether in the immediate sense of joining other Jews in prayer or in the more abstract sense of identifying with fellow Jews in Israel.”

Since its launch 13 years ago, the foundation has raised approximately $90 million to strengthen Jewish camps and, more recently, to encourage the growth of so-called Jewish specialty camps — those that focus on sports, art or outdoor adventures — in an attempt to siphon off some of the Jewish campers who might be drawn to non-Jewish camps focusing on specialty areas.

But the focus on identity building has obscured what some say is another, less-touted benefit of the camp experience that should also be a draw for Jewish parents: affording their kids a measure of freedom from intensive parenting.

“Kids go to camp and gain independence,” said Nancy Lublin, the founder of the nonprofits Dress for Success and DoSomething.org, and another speaker at the conference. “That’s why we need camp. It’s about the fun, tradition and independence. Go get dirty, get lice, sprain something. Parents will see that they don’t come home with their nose pierced, purple hair or worshiping the devil. It’s okay.”

Nancy Lublin of DoSomething.org addresses Jewish Summer Camp leaders

Helicopter parenting, a term used to refer to parents that hover over their children and pay exceedingly close attention to their every activity — sometimes to a degree that borders on smothering — is hardly a Jewish phenomenon. It has been the subject of numerous books and articles, and of late has sparked its own backlash. But Jewish parents, and particularly the much-maligned stereotypical Jewish mother, may be more susceptible to such impulses than most.

“We Jewish parents are definitely overprotective of our kids, and it’s tough to send them to overnight camp,” Lublin said. “But we all know it’s the right thing to do. It’s just what Jews do.”

For some parents, however, summer camp may not be a cure-all. Parents still call and write their kids and, with the proliferation of new communications technologies, they can remain involved to a degree that parents of a previous generation were not.

“Even when the children are away at camp, the parents will still be hovering,” said Michael Salamon, a psychologist in New York who has fingered overparenting as one of the reasons behind the so-called shidduch crisis, in which a glut of young unmarried adults — mainly in the Orthodox community — struggle to find suitable mates.

“I met with parents in a recent session who were so overprotective of their child that it was hindering the child’s ability to perform well in school,” Salamon said. “They told me they felt it was important to send their child to camp this summer to encourage independence, but really what I noticed is that they were looking for a vacation for themselves. They work so hard at parenting that they need a break.”

For parents like these, summer camp is a way to loosen the reins a little but in a way that still feels relatively safe.

Stephanie Steiner of Springfield, N.J., describes her own parenting style as “somewhat overprotective.” Still, every summer she ships off her kids to Camp Harlam, a Reform movement camp in Pennsylvania. They’ve demonstrated more independence as a result, which makes the experience — and the expense — worth it.

“We feel very comfortable with the camp and who is running it and how it is run, so it makes it easier,” Steiner said. “The camp’s motto is ‘Where friends become family,’ and we know our kids are so happy at their home away from home.”

Whatever the benefits of Jewish camping, there’s little sign that enthusiasm for it is on the wane. The Jim Joseph Foundation and the Avi Chai Foundation have put up $8.6 million in grant money to bring more Jewish children into the camping world by focusing on their specialized hobbies.

“Camp gives kids the permission to be themselves. Parents trust that camp is a positive place for building self-esteem and self-confidence,” said Jeremy Fingerman, the CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. “Jewish camp brings that and an even stronger sense of community.”

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

Children and Technology: The Good, the Bad and the Dangerous

Versions of this appeared in the Detroit Jewish News and on the Savvy Auntie website

As our society becomes even more dependent on technology, we will have to continue adapting to the technology innovations that continue to amaze us. The constant advances in everything from mobile gadgets to our household appliances will force us to change the way we currently do everyday tasks. If you need help figuring out how to use any of the new technology, just ask your kids.

Joking aside, children adapt quickest to new technology because they don’t really have to adapt much. Swiping on an iPad screen, controlling the Xbox 360 Kinect videogame console through virtual reality, or starting the family’s washing machine from a mobile app seem to come naturally for children. In the same way that parents joked in the 1980s that they needed their children to program the VCR, today’s parents marvel at how comfortable their children are with new technology.

Children as young as four years old are using the Internet, mobile devices, and gaming consoles. In some cases this is a good thing, but there are certain risk factors that parents should be aware of. While technology can be used for positive educational purposes, there are also serious physical and psychological concerns.

A recent Nielson study finds that in households owning a tablet computer and with children under 12, 70% of children use the tablet. 77% of these children are playing games, while 57% use the tablet for educational purposes. The rest of the most common responses include 55% of these children using the tablet for entertainment purposes; 43% to watch television and/or movies; and 41% to keep the child occupied while at a restaurant or event.

Many parents report that letting their children use tablet computers like the iPad can be very helpful when waiting at the doctor’s office, on long car rides, and before the meal arrives at restaurants. There are also advantages to having children do their homework on the iPad. Julie Feldman of Farmington Hills, Michigan explains that her daughter Emily (a 4th grader at Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit) is excited to come home and finish her advanced math homework on the iPad using the application Wowzers. Feldman, a registered dietician, also sees advantages in technology for children concerned about their nutrition. “My young clients are able to track their daily food intake with an app making it much easier to monitor what they eat.”

There are, however, concerns that some children are spending too much time in front of a digital screen. When children spend too many hours watching television, playing video games, surfing the Web, and using a tablet, they are likely not getting enough exercise or face-to-face social interaction. Dr. Daniel Klein, a children’s psychologist in Metro Detroit, says he sees many young patients who are spending too much time using technology by themselves and not enough time playing outside and interacting with their peers. He works with parents and provides guidance to help monitor their children’s computer and gaming activities. There are also fears that children will see things in video games or online that will have negative effects on their behavior and can lead to anxiety disorders, violent behavior, or hyperactivity.

Feldman believes that parents should determine what technology they allow their children to use based on the child’s maturity level. She gave her daughter a cell phone when she was 8-years-old, but understands that this might be too young for other children. “It’s very dependent on the child,” she says. “My daughter spends many hours at dance classes and needs to be able to communicate with us. Having a cell phone and being able to text us is anxiety reducing for her.” She also has become more cautious about her 3 ½-year-old son’s video gaming activity as she has noticed that he is acting out violent scenes and shooting with pretend guns after playing some realistic video games.

All parents should be aware of their children’s activity online and put monitoring software in place to ensure safe experiences. If a child is using a computer, parents should ensure that adult content does not come up in search results. Google and other popular search engines on the Web have SafeSearch features to filter adult content from search results. Violent scenes can also be avoided with such applications as NetNanny, which provides Internet controls.

In addition to psychological and emotional concerns, there are also physical dangers when children use technology. Dr. Daniel Rontal, an ENT at the Rontal-Akervall Clinic, notes that with the increased popularity of portable music devices among children comes an increased health risk to children’s ears. “Some children don’t realize that something is broken on their ear buds and they scratch their inner ears,” he cautions. “There is also the danger of noise induced hearing loss and that is something that isn’t even realized until years later. It won’t show up for 15-20 years, but we’re seeing more people with early hearing loss in their mid 30’s because of listening to music which is generally being played louder than it was in the 80s and 90s.”

“Kids in general feel that they’re bullet proof,” Rontal adds. “The white iPod ear buds just sit in the ear and those are okay, but the ones that go into the ear canal, called sound isolating headphones, can definitely cause infection and scratch the ear.”

Kidz Gear offers wired headphones for children designed specifically for the Apple iPod, iPhone and iPad. The Kidz Gear headphones feature unique KidzControl Volume Limiting Technology that provides a safe listening experience while helping to protect children’s hearing. This technology delivers a safe volume limited listening experience for children that is always on and limits the volume levels to 80dB and 90dB.

New technology helps us be more productive and improves our lives, but we have to learn to use it safely and in healthy ways. So too, as adults, we must be responsible and monitor the way our children utilize technology. In some cases, technology seems to be make things worse. For example, overuse of computers and mobile devices can curtail important interpersonal communication and can hinder children from developing the skills necessary to deal with others in real life.

There are real benefits to children using technology as well. Reports abound that demonstrate how technology is bolstering children’s learning experiences and complementing the education they receive in school. Some technology is even making it easier for children with developmental disabilities. The bottom line is that, like anything, there are positive and negative implications to the latest, greatest technology innovations. There are risks to children using technology without the proper supervision and moderation. The best thing that parents can do is become well trained in the technology their children are using so that they can monitor it best. That will ensure a positive, safe, and healthy technology experience for children.

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

Jewish Dolls for Jewish Girls

For generations Jewish girls collected and played with their Barbie Dolls. Yes, both Barbie and Ken looked quite Aryan but I don’t believe many little Jewish girls were complaining about their dolls’ non-Semitic looks. Now, all of a sudden, there is a plethora of very Jewish looking dolls on the market. I know this because I was escorted through the American Girl Place in Chicago this past August by my own little Jewish doll. She grabbed me by the hand and dragged (yes, dragged) me past dozens of dolls to show me the elaborate display of American Girl’s answer to religious pluralism. And that’s when I met Rebecca Rubin for the first time.

Rebecca Rubin is not a stereotypical Jewish girl. At least not from this century! She’s a cute little brunette growing up in New York City in 1914 (think Fievel from “American Tale” but a little girl instead of a mouse). Rebecca Rubin now lives with our family. We’ve adopted her, but she’s maintained her Rubin sir name and Lower East Side Depression-era attire.

As if Rebecca Rubin doesn’t look quintessentially Jewish enough, my daughter can beJEWel her even more until this doll has been tricked out with the Jewy-ist accoutrements imaginable. For $68 (that’s not a typo), Rebecca can enjoy a beautiful Shabbat with “The Rebecca Rubin Sabbath Set.” (For much less than $68 I can feed my family a delicious Shabbat dinner, complete with brisket and wine.) The Sabbath set is advertised as featuring “everything Rebecca’s family needs to celebrate the Sabbath: A Russian samovar and tray for heating water and serving tea, a tea canister and a ceramic teapot, two glasses, pretend hallah bread and a scalloped cloth, a pair of Sabbath candles that the women in Rebecca’s family ‘light’ before sundown, and two blue candlesticks that were a gift to Rebecca from Mr. Rossi.” Based on the price of the set, I just assumed those candlesticks from Mr. Rossi were real silver and that I wasn’t getting ripped off too badly.

The Rebecca Rubin doll sells for $100. With all of her hyper-Jewish accessories, figure the total investment will be around $18,000 (and that’s before Rebecca Rubin even starts day school).

If the Rebecca Rubin doll is too Old World Jewish for your daughter’s taste then there’s a whole crop of more modern Jewish dolls on the market. I learned this from an email I received this morning from the Jewish version of Groupon called JDeal, which is offering Gali Girls at a 37% discount today. Not only are these Jewish dolls less expensive than Rebecca Rubin, their less expensive than her candlesticks!

Advertised as “Learn and play the Jewish way! Gali Girls gives young Jewish girls an opportunity to bring positive Jewish values into their doll play, and create a connection between the contemporary Jewish girl and her heritage. While the majority of dolls in today’s market focus on fashion and makeup, Gali Girls reinforces the positive Jewish values that have kept the Jewish people alive and growing for 5000+ years.”

Based on the description, it looks like each of the Gali Girl dolls even comes with a Shabbat kit (in addition to a Jewish star bracelet for herself and her new owner, and a Hebrew/English name birth certificate). Not only that, but the Gali Girl dolls’ clothing is compatible with American Girl dolls. And if your daughter still wants her doll to have the nostalgic immigrant look of Rebecca Rubin, there are Gali Girls options like Shoshana who lives in colonial New York.

If you’re looking for something more feminist and egalitarian for your daughter than either the Rebecca Rubin American Girl doll or the collection of Gali Girl dolls, might I suggest this post-modern religious Barbie doll created by Jen Taylor Friedman, a Torah scribe (yes, a female Torah scribe!) in New York. The Tefillin Barbie Doll can be purchased on her website and comes in various options including a computer engineer Barbie Doll wearing a tallit and tefillin. A Mattel Barbie with tallit, tefillin and book from the Talmud sells for $130 and Torah scrolls are an additional $40. If your daughter doesn’t want the standard looking blonde Barbie, you can send Taylor Friedman any Barbie Doll and she will wrap her in the traditional Jewish garb.

All I can say is, “Barbie… You’ve come a long way baby!”

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

In Response to Rabbi Shmuley and the Tiger Mom

I’m a rabbi and a parent. I try to be successful at both. I like to think that, in both endeavors, I strike a good balance between sticking to my principles and making compromises. When I make compromises, I try not to compromise my beliefs or standards, although it’s necessary to choose battles (in both parenting and rabbi’ing).

Two notable figures have been in the spotlight recently because of the advice they dished out — one to rabbis and the other to parents.

The ever-opinionated Shmuley Boteach, a celebrity rabbi, gave his advice to rabbis in a column originally written in the Jerusalem Post. In t

Dan Hotchkiss, writing for the Alban Institute in an article about authority and leadership, writes, “In olden times, we like to think, society accorded great authority to clergy. Whether or not this rosy generalization stands up to scrutiny (it does not), we mainstream clergy certainly have lost some of the cachet our counterparts enjoyed from 1945 to 1965 or so… I believe our loss of authority presents clergy with a great opportunity. Authority, appealing as it is, can also be confining.”

The opportunity for us lies in developing a new capacity for leadership. Ron Heifetz, in Leadership without Easy Answers, sheds light on the differences between authority and leadership, and suggests how by depending on authority less and learning to lead better, we can redevelop a more varied, robust, and disease-resistant strain of congregations in America.

Tiger Mom
A seminar leader in rabbinical school said something that has remained with me ever since. He said, “It’s important for rabbis to have principles, but it’s more important to know when to not be too principled.”

Motherhood and the Rabbinate: A Male Rabbi Responds

When we hear the words of the Torah being read this Shabbat morning, we’ll learn about a group of women who had a mutual goal and succeeded.

A man named Tzelafchad died without having any sons and the laws of inheritance in the Torah only recognized male heirs, making no provision for a deceased father’s land to be claimed by his female descendants. However, Tzelafchad’s daughters, Machlah, Noah, Chaglah, Milkah and Tirtzah, refused to reconcile themselves to this fact and petitioned Moses to grant them their father’s estate. Moses brought their claim to God, who responded: “The daughters of Tzelafchad speak right: thou shalt surely give them a possession of an inheritance among their father’s brethren; and thou shalt cause the inheritance of their father to pass unto them. And thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel, saying: If a man die, and have no son, then ye shall cause his inheritance to pass unto his daughter.”

These five women didn’t let the fact that they were women get in the way of changing history. And neither did the women who broke the gender barrier in the rabbinate. Prior to June 3, 1972, no woman had ever been ordained as a rabbi in the United States. On that date, Sally Priesand became the first woman rabbi in North America. The first Conservative rabbi wouldn’t be ordained for another eleven years when Rabbi Amy Eilberg graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

It is appropriate that we learn about the courageous daughters of Tzelafchad this week following an op-ed in the Forward written by a female rabbinical student from the Jewish Theological Seminary who argues that motherhood and the rabbinate don’t mix well. Chasya-Uriel Steinbauer, the mother of an infant daughter, is on leave from the Seminary while she stays at home to care for her daughter. Somehow she found the time (probably while her baby was napping) to post on the Forward’s Sisterhood blog that mothers who are practicing rabbis are just another example of the “Super Mom-syndrome now cloaked as the Super Ima-Rabbi syndrome.”

Well, I couldn’t disagree more. Maybe Chasya-Uriel Steinbauer is not able to balance motherhood with the life of a rabbinical student, but I have certainly witnessed many women who were able to strike this balance — and impressively so.

I remember my first day of rabbinical school orientation like it was yesterday. We sat around a conference room table introducing ourselves. Many of us were right out of college. Some were single, while others were either engaged or newly married. But there were also several older students in my rabbinical school class. I remember Paula Mack Drill introducing herself in her warm way by telling us that first and foremost she is the mother of four children ages nine to two-years-old. And she wasn’t the only woman in our class who would spend the next six years raising a family and fulfilling the necessary credits to graduate and become a rabbi. During rabbinical school, many of my female classmates became mothers for the first time (or for the second or third time). And many of the men (myself included) became fathers for the first time.

Was it challenging to be both a mommy (or daddy) and still manage to attend classes, study in the beit midrash, take exams and manage a part-time job? Of course it was. Just like it is a challenge to balance motherhood with medical school or law school or any other graduate school. But it can be done and it can be done without forsaking the children.

The experience of coupling motherhood with a career is something women fought for in the last century. The opening of the doors to women in the rabbinate was very much a result of the Women’s Liberation Movement. And Judaism is the better for it. This past Mother’s Day I wrote an article for JTA in praise of women rabbis. I wrote this because my rabbinate and my Jewish experience have only been enhanced by the presence of women rabbis.

From among my rabbinical school class alone, I’ve seen one of my female classmates go on to become an entrepreneur, founding a new congregation and being recognized as one of Newsweek Magazine’s top congregational rabbis. I saw another female classmate go on to become one of the highest ranking chaplains in the Navy. I saw other female classmates build small synagogues into larger, thriving communities. And these are only the women with whom I was ordained. Look around the Jewish world and you’ll see hundreds of women successfully raising their children while also educating, counseling, writing, leading organizations and preaching.

Chasya-Uriel Steinbauer urges, “I want us to question why we allow our lives to be set up in such ways where we feel that they have no choice but to work or attend school and thus leave our babies in the care of others.” You definitely have a choice. But many women in the 21st century are choosing to do the motherhood thing along with being an executive or a graduate student or a rabbi. It can be done and it can be done gracefully without any risk to the children.

I’m actually glad that Steinbauer wrote this because it gives us a chance to praise the women who balance motherhood with their careers. No one says these women have to do it alone. Help comes from devoted spouses, caring parents serving as loving grandparents, and talented nannies. Back in rabbinical school, there were many days when a baby would join us in class. Sometimes it was a mommy who brought the baby and sometimes it was a daddy. Not only did we not mind having a baby or two in class, we actually liked it. It was a testament that we didn’t have to check our parenthood responsibilities at the door of the Seminary. It is really no different than a rabbi who sits on the bimah (pulpit) with her baby. It is a scene that might have been odd a few decades ago, but today it is commonplace.

One rabbi who prides herself on also being a mother is Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, who blogs at Ima On (and Off) the Bima. I thought her response to Chasya-Uriel Steinbauer was perfect. Reminding everyone that she is an ima (mother) both on and off the bimah, she wrote:

I am both a mother and a rabbi. Some days I’m more ima. Some days I’m more bima. (See blog title.) Some days, I’m trying to make it all work. But I don’t think I’m doing it wrong. I just know that I’m doing it. I’ve created four wonderful little people and my husband and I delight in their growth of body and spirit. We definitely juggle, we definitely argue over who goes where and when.

I hope Chasya-Uriel Steinbauer returns to rabbinical school soon. I’m sure she’ll become a talented rabbi while being a nurturing and devoted mother too. These are not mutually exclusive roles in life. It might just take her a few years to figure that out.

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

Jewish Summer Camp: A Father’s Reflection Upon His Son’s First Time at Sleepaway Camp

A few days before my oldest child ventured off to summer camp for the first time, I read a beautiful prayer by my colleague Rabbi Phyllis Sommer. On her “Ima On (and Off) the Bima” blog, she shared her prayer as her son embarked on his second summer away at camp. Titled “A Mama’s Prayer for Summer Camp,” she offered the following words:

May you find learning and growth of all kinds.
May you gain independence and feel comfort in your Jewish identity.
May the mosquitoes be guided away from you, and may the raindrops not fall into your tent (too much).
May the food be delicious and the pool the right temperature.
May you seek out new experiences and try new things (vegetables would be nice but I’m doubtful).
May you smile brilliantly for the camp photographer and show up daily in the online photo albums…

Rabbi Phyllis ended her beautiful prayer, “May you return home in one piece with all your belongings, and may you ever yearn to return to the land of summer camp.”

My son returns home from summer camp this morning. He was only gone for ten days, but these were the longest ten days of my life. I truly missed him like crazy. I had only been apart from him for this long twice before when I led trips to Israel, but at least then I knew he was safe at home with his mommy.

Like any father, I was worried about him. He wasn’t in a strange place because he essentially grew up at this Jewish summer camp. We spent the past several summers there as a family while I worked as the rabbi of the camping agency. But this was his first time away from home by himself so I was naturally concerned. Would he make new friends? Would he get enough sleep at night? Would he remember to put on sunscreen? Would he be homesick?

Inspired by Rabbi Phyllis’s prayer, I’ve constructed my own prayer for my son as he returns home to us this morning from his first summer at sleepaway camp:

Tashuv Eleinu… May you return to us feeling energized by your first experience at camp.
Tashuv Eleinu… May you return to us having forged lasting friendships.
Tashuv Eleinu… May you return to us a little more mature and a little more independent.
Tashuv Eleinu… May you return to us feeling pride in your Jewish identity.
Tashuv Eleinu… May you return to us free of sunburn and too many mosquito bites.
Tashuv Eleinu… May you return to us having missed us but without having been homesick.
Tashuv Eleinu… May you return to us eager to share your camp memories with us.
Tashuv Eleinu… May you return to us ready to return to camp for many more magical summers to come.

As a father, I am so grateful for the powerful gift of Jewish summer camp and I am confident that my son’s experiences of the past week-and-a-half have ignited a Jewish summer camping spark in him.

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

Saturday the Rabbi Wore a Pantsuit

I wrote this in praise of my female rabbinic colleagues. I have always been impressed by how women rabbis are able to juggle motherhood with the daily grind of the rabbinate. I wish a happy Mother’s Day to all the “Rabbi Mommies” out there – many of whom have made a profound impact on my own rabbinate.

Originally posted at JTAThe Jewish Journal and The Daily Rabbi

On a recent trip to Berlin with a dozen other Conservative rabbis, we made certain to stop at the apartment building that Regina Jonas once called home (photo below). I had never heard of Jonas before, but to the four female rabbis in our group she was a hero. In 1935, she became the first woman in the world to be ordained as a rabbi. My colleague, Rabbi Gesa Ederberg, hosted our group at her beautiful Berlin synagogue during our visit and doubled as a knowledgeable tour guide. We also had the opportunity to meet with rabbinical students at the Abraham Geiger College, where in 2010 Rabbi Alina Treiger became the first woman to be ordained in Germany since Jonas. Today there are hundreds of inspiring, smart and passionate women rabbis who have followed in the steps of Regina Jonas.

As another “rabba” will soon be ordained, American Jews are just getting used to the idea of female rabbis in the modern Orthodox world. However, in the more progressive streams of Judaism women rabbis have been on the scene for decades and are now part of the fabric of everyday Jewish life. In fact, one funny anecdote demonstrates that for some of the youngest members of the Jewish community, women rabbis are the only form of rabbi that exists. A female colleague tells the story of when she introduced her 5-year-old son to a male rabbi, he reacted in shock: “But Mommy, I thought only ladies can be rabbis.” Out of the mouths of babes!
In Newsweek magazine’s recent ranking of the top U.S. rabbis for this year, there were many more women listed in the top. Among these superstar rabbis were women who are leading institutions and large congregations, as well as highly sought after authors and entrepreneurs who have launched their own communities.
Like other professions in which women were once not welcome to join, the rabbinate has been forced to learn how to accept female rabbis into the ranks. Certainly, this acceptance is most challenging for the oldest generation of rabbis who came of age in the “Old Boys Network,” a rabbinate sans women. Middle-age rabbis were the first to welcome women into the profession, but also have memories of the controversy that took shape around the seminary doors opening. But for the younger rabbis (and I include myself in this cohort despite the fact my doctor tells me I’m aging a bit each day), there have always been women rabbis and we wouldn’t want it any other way.
I recall the first time I jumped into a New York City cab and noticed that my driver was a woman. I did a double-take, but then things progressed as usual. She got me to my destination, I paid the fare and her tip, said thanks, and was on my way. Not so with female rabbis, however. There are noticeable differences between the sexes and we shouldn’t pretend they don’t exist. Having women as rabbis has added immensely to all aspects of Judaism and these female rabbis have helped shape the conversation.
Women rabbis have added beautiful new rituals to our tradition. They have introduced spiritual rituals that most men wouldn’t have dreamed up like prayers for fertility, teachings at the mikvah, and meaningful customs following a miscarriage. Women rabbis have brought naming ceremonies for our daughters to the meaningful level of the bris. They can relate to the teenage bat mitzvah girl in ways that male rabbis never could or would never even try. Their commentary on the Torah and Talmud is fresh, and they can provide voices to the hidden personas of the many female characters of our rich text that have been missing for generations.
When I was in rabbinical school, I gained new perspectives from my female peers who at the time numbered just one-third of the student body. I cherish the wonderful professional and personal relationships I have with our female rabbis in town. They offer so much to our community and I feel sorry for the previous generations who missed out on the female rabbinic voices.
Many women might yearn for the day when we no longer use the term “woman rabbi” or when the Forward doesn’t publish a list of the top fifty women rabbis. But we should embrace the changing face of the American rabbinate. Men and women are different creatures and so too it is in the rabbinate. It will only be to Orthodoxy’s benefit to welcome more women into rabbinic leadership roles. Regina Jonas would be proud.
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller