Category: Rabbi Jason Miller
As explained on the knowyourmeme.com website: “What People Think I Do / What I Really Do is a series of visual charts depicting a range of preconceptions associated with a particular field of occupation or expertise. Unlike image macro series that are based on singular stereotypes like Advice Animals, this series compares varying impressions about one’s profession held by others, self-image and the often mundane reality of the job.”
The meme originated with artist Garnet Hertz’s various preconceived notions and generalizations that are associated with being a contemporary artist.
Here is my ‘RABBI’ contribution to the meme:
|What Rabbis Really Do|
|What Cantors Really Do|
My first thought was of the gay men and women currently serving in uniform who are risking their lives in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere around the globe to protect our country. I immediately decided to film a parody of Rick Perry’s video. I wanted it to be a spoof of his video in order to show the ridiculousness of his message.
The response to my video has been great so far. After only 15 hours there have been about 800 likes and only 10 dislikes with almost 5,000 views. The most meaningful aspect has been the comments on the YouTube video. One viewer wrote, “i’m an atheist but i would sure would vote for rabbi jason over any of the idiots that are postulating themselves if i could.” Another wrote, “As a non religious person raised as a christian in the church, i strongly support this, I have friends of all religions and believe our differences is what makes this country great! THANK YOU FOR YOUR EDUCATED WELL THOUGHT OUT OPINION.”
I have been pleasantly surprised that there have not been more negative, hate-filled comments in response to my video. I will not censor any comments because I believe it’s important that everyone sees the hate that exists in some people’s hearts and the ignorance that exists in their minds. Here’s a comment that made me feel very good this morning: “Bless you, Rabbi! Thanks for retaliating in such an intelligent, focused, and humorous video! Every time I’m reminded that there are people like you in this country, I have hope for it again… Hope you and your family have a bright and beautiful Hannukah! Cheers! -from Agnostic, Gay, Christopher :)”
Here is the video, which was filmed and edited by Adam Luger:
Our Jewish kids in public school have to watch as their peers celebrate Christmas — a holiday they don’t observe. They have to sit quietly as the Christian students pray in school. That just seems uncomfortable.
As President, I will fight to end this crazy talk that there’s a war on religion. And I will fight anyone who discriminates against others simply because of their sexual orientation.
Intelligence made America strong. It can make her strong again.
I’m Rabbi Jason Miller and I think it’s too cold to film a video outside in Michigan in the winter. Who approved this?
The tragic events of September 11, 2001 cast a dark shadow on the Days of Awe 5762. Many rabbis, after discarding their already prepared sermons, found their voices and were able to construct the appropriate words to bring a sense of comfort during those uncertain days.
I was in rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary at the time and I told my teacher, Rabbi Neil Gillman, about my idea for a project. Rabbi Gillman agreed to be the co-editor of the “Torah From Terror” project and we sent out requests to Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis asking them to submit a sermon from either Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur that dealt with the 9/11 tragedy. Immediately, the sermons began pouring in. I organized the sermons into the Torah From Terror website.
On this, the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks I have decided to reformat the Torah From Terror website. The sermons are now available at http://torahfromterror.blogspot.com. Now visitors are able to leave comments on the different sermons. Also, the search capability is much improved from the original site.
I hope you will visit the Torah From Terror website, and through those words of wisdom you will find comfort and hope. May those words be a remembrance of that horrific day in our nation’s history and may we continue to find inspiration in words of Torah.
Our world has changed immensely in the past decade as a result of the terror attacks on September 11, 2001, but we continue to pray the memories of the victims will be for blessings. God bless America.
Tuesday the Rabbi Went Home. What is the title Sue Fishkoff chose for her article about Rabbi Joyce Newmark’s appearance on the TV game show “Jeopardy!” last week? (“That is correct,” says Alex Trebek.)
I too was going to riff on the titles of Harry Kemelman‘s famous book series about Rabbi David Small when I first blogged about Rabbi Newmark competing on Jeopardy.
My original title for the article I submitted to JTA.org was “Monday the Rabbi Appeared on Jeopardy,” however, after it was confirmed that Rabbi Newmark won that night, the title was changed to riff on the format of Jeopardy’s trivia questions: “What is won ‘Jeopardy!’ (What did the rabbi do on Monday?).”
In fact, I had already Photoshopped artwork to accompany the article in case I didn’t receive the official photo from Jeopardy Productions in time for the article to be published. Here it is:
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.
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.
A Tribute to My Teachers
As the first decade of the new millennium comes to a close, I thought I would pay tribute to the teachers who have influenced me most during these ten formative years of my life. Like many, I feel nostalgic on New Year’s Eve as another year becomes history, and I feel especially nostalgic as the final hours of this decade pass.
I have learned a great deal from these teachers. Some have taught me in a classroom setting and some have provided valuable insight in a less formal way. Some of these teachers gave me experiential opportunities and others have guided me toward exciting endeavors and encouraged me to think differently. Friedrich Nietzsche said, “One repays a teacher badly if one only remains a pupil.” I hope that in my current and future pursuits in the field of Jewish education and beyond I will be able to repay these influential teachers.
RABBI BILL LEBEAU – During my first year of rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I immediately regarded the school’s dean, Rabbi Lebeau, as a wise sage who was a great listener and always had practical advice. At the conclusion of that year, he announced that he was stepping down as the dean to focus on fundraising for the Seminary. I couldn’t have been more disappointed. However, a couple years later he returned to the deanship and was a guiding light as I completed school and entered “the real world.”
RABBI NEIL GILLMAN – The first time I thought seriously about theology was in the late 1990s as I prepared to apply to rabbinical school and wrote my admission essays about what I believed. One individual, through his writing and his courses, has helped me formulate and make better sense of my theology. Not only did Neil Gillman teach me about theology, he also helped me feel completely comfortable teaching the subject. Whether I’m teaching “Jewish Theology” to adults or teens, I draw on what I learned from his classes.
RABBI DAVID KRAEMER – Talmud study became fun for me the first time I sat in David Kraemer’s class. Now the librarian of JTS, he drew me in to his discussions by telling stories to complement the Talmud text. His deep knowledge of the history of eating in the Jewish tradition and the foundation of the kosher laws has been invaluable to me as I launched my own kosher certification agency.
RABBI BURTON VISOTZKY – It’s been said that to truly understand the world of midrash, one needs a teacher who can unlock the door to this collection of rabbinic literature. For me, the gatekeeper was Burt Visotzky. During my final years of rabbinical school, he encouraged me to explore the text deeper and write my own midrashim. In these exercises I discovered my love of writing and commenting homiletically on the richness of biblical narrative.
MICHAEL BROOKS – While I had planned to serve as a congregational rabbi after being ordained, the best job opportunity presented itself in Michigan at the University of Michigan Hillel Foundation in Ann Arbor. Michael Brooks, the executive director, taught me the ins and outs of working with Jewish college students. My first year at the Hillel was Michael’s 25th as the director and his experience and knowledge was legendary. Leaving important articles on my desk for me to read was a daily occurrence, as was forcing me to think differently on a whole host of subjects. Michael’s perspective and connections were essential in my first “real world” job.
RABBI JOEL ROTH – I joke that Rabbi Roth is my “kosher hotline.” As a Talmud scholar, his courses on Jewish law were captivating. As a kosher expert, he has been a beacon for me as a kosher supervisor. When I was hired by Tamarack Camps to serve as the year-round rabbi and kosher supervisor, I returned to the Seminary for one-on-one training from him and I am certain I couldn’t work in the field of kosher certification without his guidance.
RABBI HAYIM HERRING – Hayim has found a niche as sort of a business coach for rabbis. The fact remains that the “rabbi as corporate executive” training does not exist in the rabbinical schools. Hayim created necessary programs to train rabbis as executives through the STAR Foundation, which ceased operations recently. Hayim has motivated me to focus on the entrepreneurial aspects of my rabbinate. He is a leading thinker when it comes to technology and our conversations have always been inspiring and stimulating.
RABBI IRWIN KULA – Irwin is my guru. Every time I read one of his articles, I find myself highlighting each word and shaking my head affirmatively. More than any rabbi today, Irwin gets it. I first worked with him during the first months of this past decade when I served an internship at Clal in New York City. So, it’s only appropriate that I finished this decade in the same office learning at his feet. Irwin, together with Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, has taken the organization that Rabbi Yitz Greenberg founded into several new directions and spread his wisdom wide into the global marketplace of ideas. Along with my colleague Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, Irwin and Brad created a dynamic fellowship for rabbis called “Rabbis Without Borders.” Participating in this new initiative was nothing less than life-changing. As the borders disappear in the global Jewish community of the 21st century, Irwin has inspired me to think about my rabbinate and my contributions to the Jewish people in new and creative ways. He has energized me to focus on the role of technology and social media in Jewish life, and invigorated me to write more. Our private conversations have been true blessings. Irwin is one of the most charismatic leaders in religion today and I am deeply honored to learn from him.
It has been a wonderful decade for me. One in which I have become a rabbi and a father. One in which I have worked passionately to contribute to society and the Jewish world. I pray that I will continue to be inspired by wonderful teachers in the future, and that I will come to be regarded as an inspirational teacher for others — lighting the sparks for students just as my teachers have lit sparks for me.
I wish everyone a happy and healthy new decade.
Cross-posted to the Jewish Techs blog at The Jewish Week
The more I blog, the thicker my skin gets. Overtime, I’ve learned to prepare myself before reading the comment section at the bottom of my posts. With great inventions, we have to take the bad with the good. It’s been wonderful that newspapers and magazines make their articles available to us on the Web, but it also means that individuals can post outrageous, defaming, and insulting comments underneath each article — opinions that would never be published in a print edition. And blogs are great, but with them comes a countless number of off-subject comments that only express hate and ignorance.
No matter what I publish on the Huffington Post website, I know that the atheists are going to be commenting in full force. Their comments often won’t have anything to do with the subject I wrote about, rather they will be self-serving statements about their viewpoint. I recently wrote on the Huffington Post about the importance of giving equal significance to the celebration of the birth of a baby girl in Judaism and the discussion in the comments section turned into a polemic against ritual circumcision. And of course any blog or article on the Web that even mentions Israel will soon have the page littered with hundreds of inflammatory anti-Israel and anti-Semitic diatribes accusing Israel of the occupation of Palestinian land.
Earlier this year, Ron Kampeas quoted the American Jewish Committee’s David Harris in an article on the JTA.org website about the nature of Web commenting. Harris, an avid blogger for Huffington Post, said, “To read some of the reactions to anything I write about Israel is sometimes to require a very strong stomach — it can be nasty, over the top, vitriolic and dripping.” Nevertheless, Harris believes that it’s important to continue blogging and responding to his critics, whether on Huffington Post or the Jerusalem Post, which has a notoriously controversial talkback section. Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League feels differently. He said, “It’s a magnet for conspiracy theorists and for haters. I look at it and sometimes wonder why am I bothering.”
Now, an Orthodox rabbi has ruled that his students are forbidden from responding to articles on websites and blogs as it may lead to religious and moral transgressions. yNetnews.com interviewed Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, one of Religious Zionism’s leading rabbis, who “stressed that this isn’t a halachic decree or a comprehensive ban from a higher rabbinic authority, it is a ruling he gave to his students after receiving a question via text message which asked: ‘After reading a ‘kosher’ article is it all right to take a look at the talkbacks?'”
Rabbi Aviner’s responded “No” to his questioner on the grounds that it would lead to lashon hara (gossip), humiliation and valueless time consumption. In Aviner’s opinion, the ability to respond to articles and publications and to hold debates should have promoted “clarification and reformation of ideas and opinions” which is why “it could have been a wonderful thing”, but instead it is used for diatribes and gossip under assumed identities which the Torah sees as “cursed be he that smiteth his neighbor secretly.”
Gary Rosenblatt, editor of The Jewish Week, issued a call for greater civility in discourse before Rosh Hashanah this year. He wrote, “Name a contentious issue, and the two sides line up to spew their vitriol, each convinced the other’s policies would bring disaster. There is a great deal of anger, fear and contempt expressed. But no real dialogue, little if any appreciation for the other side, and less and less willingness to hear another point of view in the hopes of reaching common ground. One practical concern is the missed opportunity for meaningful discussion in… the comments area on our website.”
As we enter the new year of 2011, my hope and prayer is that there is increased civility on the Web. Cyberspace is a big place and anyone with an internet connection can post their opinion, no matter how extreme or offensive it may be. But perhaps everyone can exercise some restraint and make the comments sections a more enjoyable place to engage, learn, and share ideas.
Here is my recent post on The Detroit Jewish News blog:
There’s a joke I often tell about a conversation regarding the kosher laws between Moses and God. God dictates the Jewish dietary laws to the Israelite leader in easy to understand terms, but Moses repeatedly complicates these statutes. Finally, frustrated, God gives up and tells Moses to just do whatever he wants.
From the commandments to not cook a calf in its mother’s milk and the prohibition on eating certain animals, the kosher laws have become a very complex system of eating restrictions. To ensure the compliance of the kosher standards from the farm to the factory to the grocery store to the restaurant, an entire industry of supervision and certification was been established. In recent years, I’ve found myself entrenched in this world of hashgacha.
In her recently published book, Kosher Nation, Sue Fishkoff provides the reader with an insider’s perspective about what goes on in the kosher food industry on a daily basis. Each chapter details another aspect of the Jewish dietary ethic – how kosher food has conquered the U.S. market, the business of kosher certification, the rise and fall of the Jewish deli, the kashering of a hotel for a wedding, and the often scandalous production of kosher slaughtered meat. Fishkoff circles the country to explain the subtle nuances of “keeping kosher” in the 21st century. She travels as far as China to shadow a kosher supervisor checking for compliance in several factories. Fishkoff provides insight into the sometimes dirty politics in which the kosher certification agencies have notoriously engaged. From extortion and price gouging to fraud and general dishonesty, kosher certification has gotten a bad name.
My journey to the kosher certification profession was not planned. In 2008, I was hired as the rabbi of Tamarack Camps, with my main focus to supervise of the agency’s kosher kitchens. To adequately prepare for this new role, I returned to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York where I was ordained. Though I had served as a mashgiach (kosher supervisor) in the cafeteria as a rabbinical student, I required detailed instruction to oversee the large camping agency’s many industrial kitchens as a rav hamachshir (certifying rabbi).
This new position led to my private certification of a few bakeries, bagel stores, and a vegetarian restaurant with the eventual formation of my own kosher certification agency – Kosher Michigan. This experience has been nothing less than fascinating. I now certify a paper mill that makes paraffin wax paper for kosher foods, olive oil bottling at a spice company, a gourmet chocolate factory, a foodservice corporation that provides shelf-stable meals to areas hit by natural disasters, as well as several other businesses. I’m frequently called upon to kasher industrial and residential kitchens, consult Jewish organizations on kosher matters, and speak about the kosher food industry.
I have become accustomed to fielding many questions about my kosher certification. People want to know if “the Orthodox” (as if it’s a monolithic group) accepts my imprimatur. They want to know if “Conservative kosher” (their phrase) is really legitimate. I’m frequently asked to articulate my standards and demonstrate my knowledge. Without even understanding the term, they want to know if all of the food I certify is glatt (even the bagels!). Some are surprised that I conduct unannounced spot checks more often than many of my Orthodox colleagues.
As Fishkoff demonstrates in Kosher Nation, the kosher business has changed drastically over the past several years. She writes, “Kosher has become one of the country’s hottest food trends… A generation ago, kosher was a niche industry, the business of the country’s small minority of observant Jews… Today one-third to one-half of the food for sale in the typical American supermarket is kosher. That means more than $200 billion of the country’s estimated $500 billion in annual food sales is kosher certified.” Not bad for a religious tribe that accounts for less than 2% of the U.S. population.
And it’s not just that there’s more kosher food out there. The rules of the game have radically changed as well. So many proverbial fences have been erected around the kosher laws that no 19th century rabbi would recognize them. Rabbis today can make a modest living washing leafy vegetables and checking them for miniscule bug infestations. The ultra-Orthodox have ruled that such innocuous items as strawberries, Romaine lettuce, Brussels sprouts, smoked salmon, and water cannot be consumed because of either insects or microscopic copepods. Non-observant Jewish owners of kosher grocery stores, meat markets, and restaurants are no longer trusted to hold the keys to their own businesses.
A Mafia-like reputation (“Kosher Nostra”) has been attributed to the kosher certification industry. Fishkoff tells stories of strong-arm tactics and extortion when it came to kosher meat. “Corruption and scandal also plagued the processed food industry,” she writes. “Keeping kosher is a mitzvah, but giving kosher certification is a business. And that means money, politics, and all the other unpleasant temptations that can distract a Jew from fulfilling God’s commandments.” There’s a sordid history of lax supervision of kosher-for-Passover food, substitution of cheaper treif meat in butcher shops, and rabbis selling high priced kosher certifications with no oversight in exchange. Rabbi Don Yoel Levy, the head of the OK kosher agency was interviewed by Fishkoff. He told her, “Kashrus today is power and money. And unfortunately, it’s extremely competitive. Instead of people working together to improve kashrus, everybody tries to get business away from the other one.” Levy even blames kosher politics for his father’s death. He attributes the 1986 scandal that included death threats against the state inspectors to be the cause of his father’s demise.
I am frequently called by local business owners who have been interested in acquiring kosher certification for years, but have been turned off by the methods of the established agencies. I recently met with a store owner to discuss certifying her food market, which had previously been under kosher certification. When I told her that I wouldn’t confiscate her set of keys to her store even though she is not an observant Jew and that I donate the majority of my profits to local charities, she told me that I was “a breath of fresh air.”
Positive change, however, is afoot in the kosher world. Today, more people are increasingly concerned about the food they eat, where it comes from, and who is making it. They want to be assured that it is clean, fresh, safe, and healthy. More people have specialized diets because of lifestyle choices, health reasons, or religious values. Kosher is just another option in a category that includes vegan, organic, gluten-free, and heart smart. There is a growing non-Jewish demographic that is maintaining some form of a kosher diet. And the leaders of Reform Judaism, which once shunned kashrut, are now promoting adherence to the kosher laws on some level.
Like me, other Conservative rabbis around the country are launching kosher certification agencies. There may be four major agencies, but there are close to a thousand smaller ones. Getting rid of the monopoly enjoyed by some kosher agencies in communities will only help reduce the price of kosher food. Kosher certification, I maintain, is about trust. When dirty politics and corruption are allowed to enter, they only diminish the holiness that kosher observance intends. Ending “Kosher Nostra” will add sanity to the kosher industry.
We have become so far removed from the kosher laws of the Torah and Talmud that we focus less on why we keep kosher and more on how punctilious we can be, only to “out frum” the next person. We have become so concerned about everyone else’s kosher standards that the same laws enacted to keep our community united are being used to keep us from ever being able to eat together. I’m reminded of the joke about the ultra-pious man who dies and goes to heaven. When a colossal feast of the choicest, most expensive foods is laid out in front of him, he inquires with the ministering angel about the kosher certification there in heaven. When he’s told it is the Holy One, God himself, who has sanctioned the kashrut of the food he decides to play it safe and just orders a fruit plate.
My goals for Kosher Michigan are simple. I want to help create more options for the kosher consumer without exorbitant prices. I want to shift the focus of kosher certification to trust and the compliance of sensible standards, regardless of denominational affiliation. It does not necessarily follow that a restaurant owner who does not observe the Sabbath cannot therefore be trusted to maintain the strictures of the kosher laws in his establishment. And just because a non-Jew has looked at a bottle of wine does not mean it is no longer suitable for Jewish consumption. I want to help people ask educated, thoughtful questions about kosher certification, rather than resort to pejorative comments that seek to divide our people.
I consider it a great honor to have the responsibility of keeping my eye on food production and preparation to ensure proper compliance of our kosher laws. No matter why people choose to eat kosher, I want them to feel confident trusting my certification. I’m only one person, but if I can help make the kosher industry more “kosher,” it’s an important start.
Here’s my recent post on the Jewish Techs blog (The Jewish Week)
Just like the return of the clothing fashion styles of yesteryear, many things on the Web tend to make a comeback too. It seems like every few years the same hoaxes, urban legends, videos, jokes and funny photos get recycled around Cyberspace.
I noticed that this is the case with a photo of ham — yes, ham! Through Facebook, hundreds of users are recirculating the photo of the boneless spiral ham on sale at a store with the sign “Delicious for Chanukah.”
It appears however, that someone decided to write their own midrash about the photo by including the caption: “Dear Walmart, I think you are barking up the wrong tree. Love, The Jews.” Based on the name on most of the reposted photos on Facebook, it appears that Kathy Ohsman Hoffman of Scottsdale, Arizona is the one who penned the Walmart statement.
The photo is actually from 2007 and it had nothing to do with Walmart. It was taken at Balducci’s, a specialty food store in New York City (of all places… shouldn’t they know better?). I blogged about this FAIL marketing idea at Balducci’s back in December 2007 and even included some faux holiday sale signs from other stores in my post. A quick search for “Hanukkah Ham” on snopes.com will also let you know that this poor choice in advertising occurred not at Walmart, but at Balducci’s.
In my Facebook news feed I noticed that Shir Yakov Feinstein Feit, the musical director at NYC’s Romemu, posted the Walmart/Ham accusation to which Jay Michaelson responded with a link to an article on the satire site The Onion from 1997 explaining that the 6,000 year old Jewish ban on ham has been lifted by the Jewish elders.
One of my Facebook friends added this comment to the Hanukkah Ham posting: “Nothing like a good sprial sliced smoked ham to go with latkes and applesauce….and a good glass of whole white milk. Yum”.
I suppose that just like the old holiday fruitcake, we can expect that the Hanukkah Ham photo will get passed around yet again during future Hanukkahs.