Networking At Its Best

The term networking gets used a lot and it can mean many different things. In the technology field, networking refers to a number of interconnected computers, machines, or operations. When it refers to people, it means a group of people who exchange information, contacts, and experience for professional or social purposes. This can be a support network, a social network, or a trade network.

Sometimes networking of the human variety occurs in a planned way and other times it is spontaneous. At a recent Jewish camp conference, I had the privilege of spontaneously networking with two really talented individuals. As the technology blogger for The Jewish Week’s website, I have the opportunity to collaborate with other Jewish Week writers, but it is always over the phone or via email. So, it was great to see Julie Wiener, The Jewish Week’s associate editor and columnist, in person at the conference. I hadn’t seen Julie in person since she was a staff writer for the Detroit Jewish News. Julie writes about Jewish education and intermarriage among a host of other topics. It was wonderful to discuss in person with Julie some of the interesting issues that she has covered in the paper recently.

Comic book creator and cartoonist Jordan Gorfinkel
Julie Wiener, a writer and the associate editor of The Jewish Week

A short while later I was speaking with Jordan Gorfinkel, whose comic strip “Everything’s Relative” is featured in the print edition of The Jewish Week. We were discussing The Jewish Week when Julie came over and I introduced them to each other. It’s funny how three people who all contribute to the same newspaper/website have never met in person. I guess that’s the nature of the world today. Julie and Jordan continued to talk after I left and what happened is a true example of networking in the best sense of the term. Here is Julie’s description of her collaboration with Jordan as she wrote about it in a Jewish Week article titled “Interfaith Families are Funny Too”:

I have a confession to make. For a long time, I’ve been unfairly dismissive of the “Everything’s Relative” comic strip that appears in this paper. 

Too kitschy, too Borscht Belt, too Orthodox, I felt. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but the majority of American Jews are not, in fact, Orthodox.) 

Then this week I met Jordan Gorfinkel, the artist behind “Everything’s Relative,” for the first time and discovered he is not only a nice guy, but is quite eager to incorporate fresh content, fresh perspectives and more diversity into the strip. He just wants suggestions.

So, dear reader, I promised to brainstorm some ways to help make the strip feel more contemporary and inclusive. I have some thoughts — but, in the spirit of inclusivity and big tents, I officially welcome your suggestions as well, either in the comments, via e-mail to me (julie.inthemix@gmail.com) or directly to Jordan (gorf@jewishcartoon.com).  

Here are some new characters I’d like to see: 

-An intermarried couple raising their children as Jews.
-A non-white Jew.
-A gay or lesbian Jew.
-A Russian or Israeli Jew.
-A Jew by choice (or better yet, a character who is going through the process of converting). 

Here are a few scenarios I’d like to see: 

-The intermarried couple grapples with competing expectations, stereotypes and misunderstandings from family members of each faith, revolving around the wedding, lifecycle events, holidays etc.
-The intermarried couple (or the convert-in-process) take a Judaism 101 class together.
-A character visits Israel for the first time on Birthright.
-A character becoming more religious and a character becoming less religious.
-A Hebrew school teacher or principal dealing with the joys and frustrations of trying to engage kids and their parents.
-Family members arguing about Israel, particularly its policies vis a vis the Palestinians.
-Family members arguing about the presidential election and whether or not to support President Barack Obama.

Now, that is what I call great collaboration. And serious networking!

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

Happy Birthday Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan celebrated his 70th birthday yesterday. That number has great significance in Judaism. King David lived to be 70 and it is thought that 70 is the lifespan of man. This is the reason that a second bar mitzvah is observed at age 83 (70+13).

Dylan, born Robert Zimmerman, is the only songwriter I know to have made reference to Akeidat Yitzchak (the biblical story of the binding of Isaac) in a song. In “Highway 61 Revisited,” Dylan sings:

Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run”
Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61”

I remember listening to this song in a wonderful course I took in rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary. The course, taught by Prof. Rabbi Neil Gillman, looked at different artistic representations of the binding of Isaac. I’m sure Dylan would get a kick out of the fact that his song was being studied by future rabbis at the Seminary. By the way, it’s interesting to note that Dylan’s father’s name was Abraham so perhaps the song had personal meaning for him as well.

Bob Dylan was born Jewish, became a bar mitzvah, and then converted to Christianity in the 1970s. In recent years, Dylan has embraced his Jewish roots. Michael Billig wrote an informative article for MyJewishLearning.com about Bob Dylan’s views on religion.

Happy Birthday Bob Dylan!

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

Kabbalah Centre’s Berg Sent Packing from Newsweek’s List of Top Rabbis

**UPDATE** – Somehow I missed the fact that Yehuda Berg is actually still on the list this year. He comes in at #37 (down from #14 last year). The Newsweek/Daily Beast gallery of the 50 Most Influential Rabbis shows Berg in a photo with Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore. Amazing. Just amazing. (Hat tip to Rabbi Aaron Spiegel, CEO of Synagogue 3000, for pointing out my oversight)

When I read Newsweek magazine’s expose of the Kabbalah Centre and its questionable foundation for a children’s school in Malawi founded with millions of dollars from Madonna, the first thing I thought about was the annual Newsweek list of the top fifty American rabbis (technically: the most “influential” rabbis).

Rabbi Yehuda Berg, the son of the controversial founder of the Kabbalah Centre, has been listed among the top five in Newsweek’s annual list each year. And each year, after the Newsweek list is published, there are those who argue that Berg isn’t even actually an ordained rabbi and doesn’t belong on the list. Some claim that he’s running a cult that is Judaism’s version of Scientology. And then there are those who believe that Berg isn’t a religious figure at all, but rather a businessman running a corporation that sells everything from red strings and holy water to books and astrology sets.

I immediately found it curious that the same publication that would expose such criminal income tax schemes, questionable fundraising practices and laughable merchandise sales would put the mastermind behind it all high on its list of the top rabbis in the country.

Well, sure enough the new list of the fifty most influential rabbis was published yesterday and guess who’s not on the list. Anywhere. Somehow the face of the Kabbalah Centre has disappeared from the list after being in the top five in prior years. I suppose it would have raised eyebrows even more had Yehuda Berg remained on the list only a couple week’s after the “Madonna’s Kabbalah Disaster in Malawi” article appeared. However, it would have been helpful had Newsweek/Daily Beast issued a statement as to why Berg was not included in this year’s list. It could be argued that he’s still very influential, but perhaps Newsweek is no longer regarding him as a rabbi.

I’m hesitant to criticize anyone else’s religious beliefs, however, I don’t think that what the Kabbalah Centre is producing is actually a religion at all. In fact, it’s not even fully based on the teachings of Jewish mysticism. From the Newsweek article, it looks like the Kabbalah Centre is made up of businessmen who have figured out ways to swindle people out of money, including celebrities like Madonna, corporations like Gucci, regular people buying $72 candles, and the U.S. government. The Kabbalah Centre has become classified as a Church by the IRS and they run everything (cars, houses, vacation homes, etc.) through the corporation. Add to that the scam they seemed to have produced with the foundation for the Malawi school, and I’m sure there will be a full-scale investigation soon that will end the Kabbalah Centre as we know it and return Kabbalah to its esoteric roots in the hands of the Jewish scholars of mysticism.

The good news about this year’s Newsweek/Daily Beast list of the top rabbis, in addition to them removing Yehuda Berg, is that it includes some wonderful colleagues of mine. Even though fellow social media consultant Esther Kustanowitz refers to the list as “My Rabbi’s Better Than Your Rabbi,” it actually does include some of the most influential rabbis in the American Jewish community. I was excited to see my classmate Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum of the start-up minyan Kavana Seattle make the list this year. Additionally, it was great to see the inclusion of Rabbis David Wolpe, Rick Jacobs, Irwin Kula, Jill Jacobs, Ethan Tucker, Elie Kaunfer, Shai Held, Naomi Levy, Burt Visotzky, Avi Weiss and Steve Greenberg.

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

Making the Four Children Speak to Us

One of goals of the Passover seder is make this ancient, traditional ritual speak to us today. On Monday night, throughout the world, Jewish people will retell the story of the Exodus with the commentary of the Haggadah.

For me, the most poignant part of the seder ritual is the section describing four different individuals. These four children have been used as metaphors throughout the ages to show the varied personalities of humankind. They have been portrayed in creative ways through art and other media. Jay Michaelson recently compared the Four Children to characters on the hit TV show “Glee.”

Michaelson writes that ‘Glee is… among the most ‘out’ Jewish shows to grace the small screen. Like the show’s gay, disabled, multiethnic and differently sized kids, what’s interesting about its Jewish characters is how their difference marks them as ‘other,’ but, precisely as it does so, includes them in a very 2011 world in which difference is the one thing we all have in common. As it happens, the four Jewish characters in McKinley High School’s glee club map quite neatly onto the four children of the Passover Seder, and the way each of them performs his or her Jewishness shines a different light on American Jewish identity, and on the themes of the Passover holiday.”

A few years ago, I compared the Four Sons (recently changed to “Four Children” for egalitarian reasons) to four distinct male students I had taught over the years in various Hebrew School settings. I recognized that the descriptions of the Four Children resonate with different learning styles and abilities. I have changed the names of the students to protect their privacy.

Teaching to All: The Four Children in Our Classrooms

Several of my young students have made lasting impressions on me as a teacher. However, four of these students in particular, and specifically my interactions with them, have helped define me as a teacher and influenced my educational methodology.

During my second year of Rabbinical School, I was asked to teach a class of unruly seventh graders in a suburban New Jersey synagogue school. Out of the fifteen or so seventh graders, there was one over-achieving sixth grader. Ethan had been pushed up a grade because he consistently claimed boredom in his previous years of religious school. After the first rough month, I effectively established proper classroom management, but one student remained disruptive. Once I recognized that Ethan had to be challenged in more advanced ways than the other students did, we connected. His interests lay in grasping difficult Talmudic concepts and halakhic disputes. While the other students worked to make sense of the Hebrew language, Ethan spent class time deciphering pages of Talmud and then he would review them with me after class. To this day, we’re still teaching each other, as I spend a couple of hours at his home each week introducing him to the texts I’ve encountered in Rabbinical School.

Then there was Andrew. Andrew was the first student I met on my first day of teaching fourth grade afternoon religious school during my first year of college. I could tell instantly that he was what teachers would label as “the bad kid.” And sure enough, he spent his time in class testing me. It wasn’t a normal day in class if Andrew didn’t question the point of even attending Hebrew school at all. As a rookie teacher without much supervision, I made a ritual out of sending Andrew out of the class each time he misbehaved following numerous warnings. It was only after a frank discussion with him before class one day that I realized the problem was mine. I might have been teaching the right information, but I wasn’t teaching it in the right way for Andrew. That class was a watershed moment because from that day on, I approached Andrew differently as a learner, and he responded by changing his attitude in the classroom. Andrew was my star student the following year in fifth grade and in the subsequent sixth grade. Last year during Pesach, we had a chance to sit together, catch up, and study a little Torah. I took the opportunity to wish Andrew well as he prepared for his first year of college.

When I received a phone call asking if I would consider tutoring a young boy named Jonathan, I was given a stern warning from his mother. “Jonathan, well, he has a learning disability. It’s severe. You know, he’s just not a real smart kid and he couldn’t handle Hebrew school.” I accepted the challenge nevertheless, and discovered that Jonathan learns best when the material can be connected to his interests. We talked about Judaism in hockey terms – his favorite sport. I would ask Jonathan about a rule in professional hockey, and then, I would explain a rule in Judaism. And since he could only concentrate for small amounts of time, we would study the Hebrew alphabet or holidays or Jewish values, and then take a break and schmooze for a few minutes. The relationship developed, and after four years, I officiated at Jonathan’s Bar Mitzvah. The boy who was told he wouldn’t have a bar mitzvah because he’d never be able to read Hebrew led the congregation in a beautiful Havdallah service and taught us how he understands his role as a responsible member of the Jewish community.

Another student who made an impact on me as a teacher, perhaps without ever knowing that he did, was Kevin. Kevin was a fourth grade boy with autism whose parents requested that he be mainstreamed into religious school even if it just meant sitting in the back of the room and watching the other children learn. He rarely spoke, and when he did, it was never applicable to the class’s conversation. One day, as the other students worked on an art project, I handed Kevin some paper and some markers. I asked him to draw whatever he wanted. He put marker to paper and depicted the various themes of Rosh Hashanah – the exact topic the class had been discussing the week prior. Kevin didn’t, and indeed couldn’t, articulate that he understood the lesson until I asked him to respond in the way that best suited his learning style. His disability made him the student who just didn’t have the capacity to respond – or at least not in the normative way. K’neged arba’ah banim dibra haTorah – Four students, four very different types of learners. And four very different approaches that I, as a teacher, had to utilize.

Howard Gardner, a professor at Harvard, defines seven types of intelligences. Some students, he explains, are more skilled with language, while others are more logical or spatially perceptive. Some learn by physically acting out new skills, and others are better listeners. Some learn better in groups, and others are more introspective. These are the multiple intelligences. It’s no secret that we each learn best in different ways, but the million-dollar question is how teachers can best teach to all students, to all learning styles. This is the central objective of my rabbinate – to be a Jewish educator who can reach each student in the most optimal way for that student to best comprehend the content knowledge. And it is a challenging objective. As a student of Gardner, I understand that I cannot value any one of the intelligences over another – and therein lays the challenge of meeting each student’s needs as a learner.

The debates among educators today focusing on the best practices for teaching are not new to us. In fact, we see them come alive each year at the Pesach Seder. The midrash of the arba’ah banim, the Four Children, presents four individuals who ask about the tradition in very different ways. The wise, the rebellious, the simple, and the one who does not know how to ask. They are four very different learners who need to be addressed as individuals. And the Rabbis of the Mishnah, in their wisdom, understood this well. In Mishnah Pesachim, they prepare us for the Seder by teaching u’lefi da’ato shel ben aviv melamdo – that parents are meant to share their Jewish identity with each child “according to his or her intelligence,” taking into account background, age, personality, attitude, and learning style. Perhaps without possessing the language that Gardner introduced to us over twenty years ago, the Rabbis still understood the concept of multiple intelligences.

We see this elaborated on in Pirkei Avot – the Teaching of the Sages. We learn about four types of students. Maher lishmo’a u’maher l’abed – quick to understand but quick to forget. Kashe lishmo’a v’kashe l’abed – one who understands with difficulty but seldom forgets. Maher lishmo’a v’kashe l’abed – quick to understand and seldom forgets much like our wise child at the Seder. And kashe lishmo’a u’maher l’abed – learning is difficult for this student and when knowledge is gained, it is not retained. Further, in Pirkei Avot, metaphors are attributed to these four learners: the sponge, the funnel, the strainer, and the sifter. These mishnayot describe four diverse learners, but they do not advise on how to best instruct them. The Haggadah addresses this need.

The Seder is a pre-packaged curriculum that considers the multiple intelligences. Dr. Ron Wolfson characterizes the Seder as “a talk-feast in four acts.” And throughout these four acts, a variety of teaching methods are presented, making the Seder a model for teachers. The Pesach Seder, as a system or process, demonstrates that we need to have a supply of pedagogical tools at our disposal when presenting information.

Throughout the evening and into the night, the Seder keeps our attention and that of the children. It does this through experiential learning, with songs and games, with show and tell, through interpretive text study, and by way of a forum for questions and dialogue. The Seder Plate, the eating of odd mixtures of food, the mnemonic devices, the telling and re-telling, and the catchy tunes are all ways to attract our varied learning styles. And if we want everyone at our Seder to truly feel a part of the Exodus from Egypt, as is the mitzvah, then it is incumbent upon us to provide the telling, the Haggadah, in a manner that allows everyone to receive the Tradition in the best way possible. We must draw on our creativity for this to work. And we must not give up. We must be persistent, telling the same story over and over in different ways until we get it right for every learner assembled in front of us.

Maimonides saw the need for this approach as well. He suggested ways to arouse the children who are too bored or cynical at the Seder. His words encourage us to invent our own provocations for these types of children. He understood the intention of the Rabbis in trying to stimulate inquiry and, perhaps before his time, Maimonides saw the need to motivate those who were apathetic at the Seder due to alternative styles or barriers to learning.

The complication about how to teach to the multiple intelligences is that there are more than just four types of learners. And there are more than just seven intelligences to consider. Each of us possesses characteristics of the Four Children. And we each respond best to different teaching techniques depending on the subject, depending on the environment, and depending on our mood. The Four Children provides a strategy for addressing four different aspects of each student.

Rashi, the Medieval French Biblical commentator, questions the placement of the Four Children text in the Haggadah. He explains that we are not likely to think that it is connected to the section preceding it, but it is. In fact, he reads the section Baruch Hamakom Baruch Hu right into the Four Children section, telling us that it is samuch – connected. Thus, Rashi’s understanding is that we are praising the Holy One for giving us the Torah and making it accessible to each of us, alluding to the characteristics of the Four Children. Reading Rashi with our understanding of the multiple intelligences, we, in effect, are thanking God that the Torah addresses different learning styles. I also understand this to mean that we are grateful for God’s gift of the Torah, but it is now up to us to figure out how best to teach it to our children and to others. Just as we are partners with God in creation, so too are we partners with God in education.

Being God’s partner means having to accept that there are those for whom barriers exist to learning due to a disability. This poses a challenge to both the learner and the teacher. In Judaism, we are empathetic to those for whom disabilities get in the way of learning. Some of our greatest leaders had disabilities. Both Yitzchak and Ya’akov suffered from blindness in old age. Moshe, our leader par excellence suffered from a speech impediment. And a handful of our rabbinic sages experienced disabilities that did not hold them back from being links in the chain of our Tradition.

Our Torah teaches us that we must not put an obstacle before the blind. This directive can be understood to mean that we must try to not teach in a manner in which the student will comprehend. We must teach so that the student will succeed. We must focus on their strengths rather than on their weaknesses or disabilities.

On the subject of special education, Rabbi Reuven Hammer wrote twenty-five years ago that “the responsibility of the Jewish community springs from the traditional Jewish emphasis upon the importance of education not only for the elite, but also for everyone.” We, as educators do not want to label children or pigeonhole them into broad categories as the Haggadah does, but we must identify their strengths as learners. And we must detect what barriers exist to learning for them, so we can work around those barriers and make the necessary connections for educational success.

Today, the Conservative Movement’s Solomon Schechter schools are addressing the growing need for special education by reaching out to those with exceptional learning styles and individual requirements. Camp Ramah’s Tikvah program is a national model for excellence in summer education for those with learning challenges. And a new organization is providing a wealth of special needs services for children with learning disabilities, creating a new, cutting-edge curriculum for Jewish day and synagogue schools.

MATAN co-founder Meredith Englander explained the goals of the curriculum in a recent article in the New York Jewish Week. “In each class, you are likely to have students who experience success through different modes of learning. This multi-leveled curriculum presents varied lessons, each coded with a special symbol indicating a particular learning style, such as tactile, experiential, kinesthetic, auditory or visual, providing different levels with different learning modes.”

The learner who is unable to phrase the right questions might possess a barrier to learning. It is up to us to help these learners in the she’eno yode’a lish’ol category construct the necessary questions. From the Haggadah, we learn that asking the right questions is an essential component of the learning process. The Four Questions that the youngest child at the Seder traditionally asks are also a pedagogical tool. They are spoon-fed to the child to precipitate dialogue and encourage question asking from all the participants at the Seder. But they are also used to teach the child who might not come up with questions on his or her own, that questioning is important and it is how we learn.

Wednesday night at your Seder, I encourage you to ask your guests about their own learning styles you would have seen that there exists a wide variety of approaches to learning at the table and that’s precisely why the Rabbis created the Seder in such a way. Think of your Seder as a classroom with a multiplicity of learning behaviors, with a wide-range of social and emotional paradigms. Just as educators cannot teach in one voice to the entire classroom and expect 100% reception, neither can we expect our Seder to be one-dimensional. We must teach to each individual in a unique way.

The Book of Proverbs advises chanoch lana’ar al pi darko – “Train a child according to his way.” This is the lesson I have learned as a Jewish educator over the past few years. While Ethan, Andrew, Jonathan, and Kevin may not always fit precisely in one of the Four Children categories of the Haggadah, they each, in their own way taught me about how they learn as individuals. They taught me how I must teach to be successful, always keeping in mind the learning needs of each individual student.

Education is a balancing act. We must embrace all of the learning styles represented by the arba’ah banim, and tailor our Haggadah, our telling of Jewish history, to each other’s intellectual capacity, attitude, and interests. Only then will we all have the merit of fulfilling the central mitzvah of this festival, b’chol dor vador chayav adam lir’ot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatza mi’Mitzrayim – that in every generation we must envision ourselves as having been part of the Exodus from Egypt. If the educational approach is personal, then our encounter with history will be a personal experience as well.

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

On Jewish Identity

I was one of three Jewish educators asked to respond to a statement about Jewish identity for this month’s issue of Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility. The statement was co-written by Patrick Aleph and Michael Sabani, the co-founders of Punk Torah. After I responded to their statement in writing, Patrick and Michael interviewed me via Skype. Their statement, my response and the video interview are below:

“If I try to be like him, who will be like me?” (Yiddish Proverb)

No study has ever been done to discover the root cause of why people stop identifying with Judaism. If we worry less about Judaism as a culture and more about monotheism, we might find that — suddenly — people have something more to believe in. Jewish identity is more than matzah ball soup and Young Professionals mixers.

God, Israel (the people), and the Torah are essential for Jewish identity. Without God, we sit on a stool with only two legs. Theists need to summon up the courage to put God first in Jewish life in spite of the urge to keep our heads down so we don’t look crazy.

We often place a lot of importance on not standing out, especially in a “tribal” sense. It gives us a sense of being a part of something larger than ourselves. The flip side is that if we all try to be like someone else, we lose who we really are.

Judaism is a path (halakhah) that allows us to walk together, even if we walk at our own pace. When we try to be like another, we are giving up our God-given individuality.

—Patrick Aleph and Michael Sabani

My response: 
Jewish identity is a tricky subject. We have no consensus on how to define it, what it should feel like, or to what extent it should be particularistic. I find that Judaism has much wisdom to offer, both to adherents of the faith and to the rest of the world. I’m often, therefore, baffled by our numbers — that we account for such a small fraction of the population.

Should we worry more about monotheism, as Michael Sabani and Patrick Aleph suggest? Should we worry less about the cultural components of our peoplehood? These are decisions that each individual “member of the tribe” must make. Some Jews will be enthralled with bagels and lox on Sunday mornings, federation meetings, Seinfeld reruns, and B’nai Brith softball. Other Jews will recharge their spiritual batteries in traditional synagogue life. Some will look to Jewish summer camp as their source of Jewishness, and for other people it will be the connection to the State of Israel. We are a club, but we’re not sure who is included and who decides our boundaries. It is good for us to stand out as tribally different, but we should also count our blessings that we are included in the larger fabric as well.

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

Top 10 Reasons I Hate Lists: The Newsweek Ranking of the Rabbis

Within hours of the publication of yesterday’s 50 Most Influential Rabbis list by Newsweek Magazine, I began to hear complaints about this list.

On Twitter and Facebook, as well as in the blogosphere and in person, people complained about the idea that a mainstream magazine like Newsweek (which is for sale if anyone’s interested) would publish an unscientific listing of top rabbis.

Year after year, the only rabbis who seem to like this list are the ones who make the ranking and can then add the accolade to their bio and have their temple, synagogue or organization issue a press release.

One comment on Facebook regarding the list chastised these influential rabbis. “Personally, I have little respect for influential rabbis. It means they are spending too much time on their public image and too little on being rabbis.”

Others took exception with the high number of non-congregational rabbis who made the list. “Really? They’re more influential than the rabbi who has spent his (or her) whole life in a pulpit serving the needs of their congregants? I’d have to say, I’m not sure that’s really true. They’re more visible certainly, but fame isn’t the same as influence.”

Julie Wiener of The NY Jewish Week wrote the Top Ten Reasons To Hate Newsweek’s Annual Top Rabbis List. I have to agree with many of her arguments. I too was surprised at the number of misspellings on the list. After all, if Shmuley Boteach and Avi Weiss are so influential and famous, how can their names be botched in a high-profile magazine like Newsweek (Schmuley and Weis!)? By the way, I know a few out-of-work, not-very-influential rabbis who’d be willing to proofread future articles on the Newsweek website.

I agree with Julie that it’s odd that Newsweek runs such a list for rabbis and not for any other group of religious leaders. Honestly, I don’t think I’d find a Top 50 list of imams or priests to be very interesting and that’s exactly how I imagine the 98% of the country’s population that isn’t Jewish feel about this list (not to mention the 98% of Jewish Americans who have never heard of these rabbis and could care less about how influential two guys think they are).

The #1 rabbi on the list, Yehuda Krinsky, is the leader of Chabad Lubavitch. He’s very influential when it comes to Chabad, but probably much less influential for non-Chabad following Jews. Not to mention, there’s a deceased rabbi who still holds more influence over Lubavitchers than even Krinksy.

I’ve never really liked these lists anyway. After all, some “Who’s Who” lists are just made up of the people in that field who agreed to purchase the “Who’s Who” book after it was published. Other lists (e.g., 40 under 40) are just made up of people who were nominated by one person rather than an actual election.

This list really comes down to who are the most well known rabbis in the country. Getting published, running an organization, or being elected president for a two-year term in your denomination’s rabbinic group should put you somewhere on this list. Short of that, having a television show and hanging out with Michael Jackson or the President puts you in the top ten. A rabbi of a 100-member congregation in a small, nobody-ever-visits city may be very influential in that community but the two Hollywood moguls (Sony Pictures Chairman and CEO Michael Lynton and Time Warner Exec VP Gary Ginsberg) who make the Newsweek list will never have heard of him/her.

If Newsweek really wants to know who the most influential rabbis in the country are, they should probably take a field trip to any Hebrew School where a rabbi stands in front of a class of 2nd graders once a week.

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

Mark Zuckerberg, Emily Gould & Rabbeinu Gershom

Cross-posted at Jewish Techs

What do Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg, blogger Emily Gould, and the 10th-11th century scholar Rabbeinu Gershom have in common?

They all articulated their views about privacy.

Zuckerberg was criticized last month for Facebook’s new privacy settings. Over 500 million worldwide users of Facebook had more of their information made public because Zuckerberg believes that “if people share more, the world will become more open and connected. And a world that’s more open and connected is a better world.”

Zuckerberg, now 26-years-old, created Facebook in his Harvard dorm room as a way to connect co-eds in the Ivy League. Today, it’s used by all ages across the globe to divulge more personal information than anyone had originally planned.

Zuckerberg’s first privacy controversy came on November 6, 2007 when he announced a new social advertising system at an event in LA called Facebook Beacon. The application enabled users to share information with their Facebook “friends” based on their browsing activities on other sites. Beacon came under attack from both privacy groups and individuals with Zuckerberg ultimately taking responsibility and offering an easier way for users to opt out of the service.

Emily Gould, author of “And the Heart Says Whatever,” has also been affected by the sharing of private information on the Web. She writes in the current issue of Newsweek: “I should have known that the blog, an anonymous diary of my personal life, was a bad idea. As a reporter for the gossip site Gawker, I spent my days deconstructing similar attempts at concealment. But I lulled myself into a false sense of security.

Disclosing her personal information and experiences with everything from cooking to an office romance gone bad, robbed Gould of her private life. Everything quickly became public and spread around Cyberspace. Her former boyfriend revealed secrets of their relationship in a tell-all article in the New York Post Sunday magazine.

Gould, who “spent the next few days wishing the Web away,” is the classic example of someone who’s life was changed by over-sharing. In the Information Age, TMI doesn’t just mean sharing too much information; it means that your too much information has gone viral on the Web.

And that brings us to Rabbeinu Gershom. Centuries before the invention of e-mail and status updates, this sage understood a thing or two about privacy. At the beginning of the eleventh century, the leading German rabbi was Gershom, known by German Jewry as Rabbenu ((our Rabbi) Gershom. According to the tradition, he wrote four special ordinances (takkanot) which differed with Jewish law in Babylonia.

While his most famous decree concerned the outlaw of polygamy, Rabbeinu Gershom also made it a major sin to open and read someone else’s mail. This legal ruling ensured the privacy and safety of mercantile transactions between Jewish communities.

This sort of makes us wonder what Rabbeinu Gershom would make of the voluntary sharing of personal material on the Web today. Perhaps, someone should share Rabbeinu Gershom’s teaching with Mark Zuckerberg so his company locks down users’ personal information that should be kept private.

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

Our Tweeter in Washington

Cross-posted to Jewish Techs

Much has already been made of the social media posting habits of William Daroff. Whether on Twitter or Facebook, the well-connected director of the Washington Office of The Jewish Federations of North America (and its VP for Public Policy) isn’t afraid to go public with his whereabouts, upcoming speaking engagements, or even his drinking buddies.

Earlier this month, the JTA’s Ron Kampeas dubbed Daroff “The Fastest Tweet in the Jewish Organizational World” and the Fundermentalist (AKA Jacob Berkman) tweeted about Daroff that “the JFNA’s crackberry head has a serious case of the twitters.”

Some in the Jewish Federation network may think that this Washington insider tweets too much, but others appreciate the bird’s eye view that Daroff provides. His embrace of social media and lack of restraint when it comes to providing his daily schedule may lead to more transparency in the Jewish communal world.

Keeping up with Mr. Daroff’s professional life — knowing which D.C. movers and shakers he’s wining and dining, and which cities are on his travel itinerary — is a glimpse into the life of a Federation executive that most never had. Letting the world (or at least anyone who follows the @daroff feed on Twitter) know when he’s in a meeting with Israeli leaders on Capitol Hill or at the White House Hanukkah party removes much of the guessing game about the Jewish community’s political access in Washington.

Of course, it’s easy to take the tell-all nature of Twitter too far. There have been times when Daroff’s Blackberry tapping fingers took him into TMI territory.

A friend of mine, who’s a Jewish communal professional, found himself drinking Scotch with Daroff at the hotel lobby bar at this year’s Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) conference. (Single Malt Scotch is certainly one of Daroff’s own trending topics on his Twitter feed.) Before the first sip, the list of imbibers was tweeted around the Internet. Back at the office following the conference, a few eyebrows were raised following Daroff’s tweet and my friend had to explain to his colleagues that the bar tab wasn’t paid for with agency funds.

Adam Kredo, writing in the Washington Jewish Week, also noted the gray area in which Daroff navigates when he Tweets his opinion. This past Fall, Daroff tweeted that the left-leaning Israel group J-Street “stands with the Mullahs and the hard left at NIAC [National Iranian Action Council]” who are “opposed to sanctioning Iran.” That tweet might have gotten Daroff in some hot water, but as he aptly put it, “I have a cool job and get into cool places. You shouldn’t have to buy me a scotch in order to hear what I’m up to, and Twitter allows for that.”

Web 2.0, in addition to opening doors into new media, has also forced us to raise questions about the dissemination of professional and personal information. Is it appropriate for Jewish communal non-profit executives to divulge what they do when the workshops and plenary sessions come to an end at professional conferences? Is it unseemly for Jewish communal executives to fire off quick missives from their Blackberry before their communication department has a chance to review them? Is it wise for leaders of Jewish organizations, rabbis, day school heads, or foundation leaders to keep us up to date in 140 characters or less? Will social media help us gain a better perspective of what our Jewish communal leaders do on an average day?

My own sense is that William Daroff’s “tweeps” do in fact appreciate his candor. And with over 2,500 Twitter followers and about the same number of Facebook “friends,” he’s built quite an audience. Perhaps if more Jewish leaders follow Daroff’s lead and aren’t afraid to share their activities (and ideas) with the community-at-large, there will be more young Jews eager to connect to the organized Jewish community.

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