Conservative Rabbi on The Daily Show

My colleague, Rabbi Gideon Estes of Congregation Or Ami, played the straight man last night on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. After Justin Bieber opened the show pretending to be Jon Stewart, Estes had a tough act to follow, but did a great job.

Daily Show correspondent John Oliver went down to Texas to file a story about the campaign of a Jewish Republican man to be re-elected speaker of the Texas State House. Estes, wearing his Jewish Theological Seminary tallit (prayer shawl), was interviewed by Oliver about the opposition to Joe Strauss being re-elected because he is Jewish and not a Christian conservative.

At the end of the segment, John Oliver celebrates his creation of a new high holiday called “Yom Chechechecheh” with the Hebrew School children at Estes’ congregation.

Check out the video below:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart RabbiJason.com
Conservative Rabbi Gideon Estes on The Daily Show
www.thedailyshow.com

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

ESPN Joins the Who Is a Jew Debate

Since commenting here about how the assassination attempt of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords has brought the “Who Is a Jew” debate back into the spotlight, I have had some really intriguing conversations with colleagues about how we define Jewish status. A number of colleagues, including Rabbi Irwin Kula, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, Rabbi Alana Suskin, and Rabbi Sue Fendrick, posted comments and contributed to the discussion on this blog. A Reform colleague and I have had an ongoing private discussion about patrilineal descent. She told me that some Reform rabbis are questioning whether Gabby Giffords would even be considered Jewish according to the Reform movement’s definition (there’s been no mention of her Jewish education or upbringing which would be required by the Reform movement’s policy on Patrilineal Descent).

My rabbinical school classmate, Rabbi Micah Kelber, noticed that the “Who Is a Jew” debate has even made its way into the sports world. Watching ESPN’s “First Take,” Kelber caught commentator Skip Bayless putting his foot in his mouth while referencing how Judaism defines Jewish status through lineage. He blogged about at Jewcy.com:

Today Skip Bayless of ESPN’s First Take made a tiny, but amusing mistake while debating whether it is appropriate to call Blake Griffin of the Los Angeles Clippers the first great white star because while his father is black, his mother is white. To support his argument, he appealed to the Jews for help in determining someone’s identity.

His slip of the tongue: “I would just like to point out that in some cultures, like in the Jewish culture, if the mom is white, you’re Jewish.”

I don’t think that’s what he meant or else there’d be a whole lot more Jewish people in the world. I never thought the question of Jewish status would be taken up on ESPN. Maybe it’s better if it didn’t. In fact, maybe it’s better if we all moved on to other subjects now.

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

Jimmy Kimmel Against the Rabbi

What’s the deal with Jimmy Kimmel and rabbis? This year alone, ABC’s late night talk show host has featured three rabbis (or almost rabbis) on his show. Kimmel used to date comedian Sarah Silverman whose sister Susan is a Reform rabbi living on a kibbutz in Israel.

Back in April, Yuri Foreman was a guest on Jimmy Kimmel Live!. The WBA super welterweight champion was introduced by Kimmel as a future rabbi who studies Talmud. The video of the future rabbi’s interview with Kimmel can be seen here.

Last week, Jimmy Kimmel explained the Hanukkah story to his millions of viewers and then showed the video of Chabad Rabbi Shlomo Cunin of California with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Kimmel wished a “Happy first night of Hanukkah to our Jewish viewers. Tonight is the first night of eight nights of celebrating and misspelling hanukkah. Or maybe there is no correct way to spell it.” He even suggested that the Jewish holiday could be spelled Chaka Khan. The video is of Rabbi Shlomo Cunin and Governor Schwarzenegger at the 17th annual menorah lighting at the State Capitol in Sacramento.

Those rabbinic appearances seemed to go okay, but now Jimmy Kimmel is in some trouble for a video shtick he did in August. Kimmel is being sued by Rabbi Dovid Sandek, the flamboyant ultra-Orthodox rabbi who goes by the “Flying Rabbi” and whose YouTube videos have become popular. Rabbi Sondik claims his image was used without his consent when Kimmel used a YouTube video segment on the show that poked fun at basketball superstar LeBron James’ free agency decision this past summer.

Yahoo! News reports that, “According to a complaint filed in New York Supreme Court on December 10, Kimmel in August was trying to make a joke about reports that LeBron James had met with Rabbi Yishayahu Yosef Pinto for business advice. Kimmel claimed that he himself had met with Rabbi Pinto for advice and showed the audience a video of the exchange. The rabbi shown speaking to Kimmel appears to be Rabbi Sandek, not Rabbi Pinto.”

Rabbi Dovid Sandek The Flying Rabbi

Sandek claims he was made to “look foolish” and presented as a “laughingstock.” While the late night show did get permission to use the TMZ owned footage of LeBron James with Rabbi Pinto, it never licensed the YouTube clips of Rabbi Sandek. Oops! Now the video of Jimmy Kimmel getting advice from the rabbi (Sandek) has been removed from the Web as the lawsuit is pending.

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

Religious Leaders Must Preach Tolerance & Compassion Toward LGBT Community

Last night, I saw the movie “It’s Kind of a Funny Story.” The movie, based on the 2006 novel by Ned Vizzini, deals with teenage depression and suicide in a very real and honest way. I might have reacted differently to this movie had I seen it before the recent wave of teen suicides in the LGBT community that have made national headlines. Each of the four teen characters in the movie suffer from depression in one way or another. And while none of them is homosexual, watching the movie I was forced to consider the responsibility that I, as a rabbi, have in preaching tolerance and compassion toward the LGBT community to eradicate this epidemic.

The high rate of suicide among gay and lesbian teens has been brought to light in the darkest way possible. Communities have been devastated by the news of gay teens being bullied to the point of taking their own lives. The reaction to these tragedies has been mixed, as have the reactions to the reactions. For example, I’m sure that Clint McCance, the vice president of the Midland, Arkansas School Board, never expected the reaction he received after posting his anti-gay rant on Facebook. That a leader in a school system could make such hurtful and shameful comments publicly on the Web about his fellow human beings is outrageous. It is up to religious leaders to shift the national conversation on LGBT issues to one that prioritizes human dignity and compassion.

On Tuesday, October 19, as Facebook users across the nation were changing their profile pictures to a purple hue to publicize the need for compassion toward the gay community and in memory of the gay teens that killed themselves, another tragedy was taking place. At Oakland University in Michigan, where I serve as a visiting professor of Jewish Studies, yet another gay teen ended his life after being bullied relentlessly since coming out a few months ago. Less than a week earlier on Oakland’s campus, a lunchtime program sponsored by the Gender and Sexuality Center screened the film “Bullied,” a teaching tolerance documentary. The banner advertising the event still hung in the hallway of the student union in the days following Corey Jackson’s death, as if to say “Something more must be done.”

To show my support to the LGBT community, along with millions of others, I added a purple tint to my Facebook and Twitter profile pictures on Spirit Day. All of the responses I received were positive and supportive, except for the comment left on my Facebook page by a politically conservative Orthodox Jew. He simply added the link to a New York Post article by Maggie Gallagher, president of the National Organization for Marriage, titled “Don’t blame me for gay teen suicides.” I read the article and then felt even sadder. Gallagher argues that she doesn’t have blood on her hands when gay teens are bullied and kill themselves. She conveniently shifts the conversation to the gay marriage debate, but at issue here is allowing gay and lesbian teens to feel pride and comfort in society so they don’t get bullied, fall into depression, and eventually take their own lives. Until this horrific trend ends, all Americans have blood on our collective hands.

My teacher, Rabbi Steven Greenberg, recently wrote a powerful opinion piece in The New York Jewish Week, titled “The Cost of Standing Idly By.” The first article of Greenberg’s I ever read was in a rabbinical school class at the Jewish Theological Seminary when he was still a closeted gay man using the pseudonym “Jacob Levado” (a reference to the patriarch Jacob of the Hebrew Scriptures feeling alone). Here, Greenberg relates what happened when he and his partner relocated from New York City to Cincinnati. Soon after they arrived, the rabbi of the local Orthodox congregation called apologetically to inform him that he and his partner were not welcome to attend the synagogue based on a ruling from another rabbi. Greenberg contacted the rabbi who issued the ruling and shared with him that “people who are gay and lesbian who want to remain true to the Torah, are in a great deal of pain. Many have just left the community. Some young gay people become so desperate they attempt suicide.”

Most people would expect the religious leader to respond to that last sentence with some amount of compassion, perhaps deep sadness. However, he replied, “Maybe it’s a mitzvah (commandment) for them to do so.” The speechless Greenberg asked for clarification and was told that what he heard was precisely what the rabbi intended to say. In other words, since homosexuals are guilty for capital crimes according to the Torah, perhaps it might be a good idea for them to do the job themselves. Wow! I wonder how many Jewish people will read that statement and question if this is the right religion for them.

Rather than let this uncompassionate individual silence him or force him to find a more inclusive community, Greenberg came up with a list of three steps his colleagues in the Orthodox rabbinate, and leaders in Orthodox institutions, can and should take at this time. He encourages them to sign the Statement of Principles, which says that “embarrassing, harassing or demeaning someone with a homosexual orientation or same-sex attraction is a violation of Torah prohibitions that embody the deepest values of Judaism.” Second, he calls on Orthodox institutions to sign a letter, initiated by the LGBT advocacy group Keshet, condemning bullying and homophobia in the Jewish community. Third, he states that Orthodox institutions must immediately cut off any support or endorsement of so-called “reparative therapy.”

I would take Greenberg’s call to action a step further and call upon all religious leaders, regardless of faith, to advocate for tolerance and compassion toward the LGBT community. We all stand firm in trying to eradicate the other stressors leading to teenage depression and suicide. Why should the bullying of gay teens be any different? This epidemic is only made worse by the inflammatory comments of people like the Orthodox rabbi in Cincinnati who proposed that it’s a mitzvah for gay teens to kill themselves and Clint McCance, a school board official who wrote on Facebook, “It pisses me off though that we make special purple fag day for them. I like that fags can’t procreate. I also enjoy the fact that they often give each other AIDS and die.”

At this stage it is no longer about the heated and divisive issues like gay marriage or “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” It is now a matter of life and death. Teens being bullied until they commit suicide isn’t a political issue; it’s a human issue. Religious leaders across this country: Please stand up and put an end to this national tragedy.

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

Jay Michaelson On Taking the Boring Out Of Shul

I just read Jay Michaelson’s spot-on article in the Forward, “Rethinking Egalitarianism:
Are We Leveling the Playing Field Too Low?”
. Michaelson seems to always have his pulse on the Jewish community, and his perspective is not limited to only one denomination or to what’s going on in New York City.

His article tackles several problems in synagogues today and I agree with him on most counts. I disagree, however, that egalitarianism has much to do with the malaise one finds in most non-Orthodox congregations today. He begins by introducing his friends who emigrated from the famous B.J. (B’nai Jeshurun) on the Upper West Side to a mid-size Jewish community in the South. When they couldn’t find a shul as invigorating and active as B.J., they settled for the Modern Orthodox congregation despite their egalitarian leanings. Not finding a shul like B.J. is a common complaint for people who leave this dynamic ruach-filled NYC congregation and go elsewhere. In fact, as a rabbi I’ve heard dozens of people exclaim after visiting B.J. just once, “Why can’t we recreate the B.J. experience at our shul?” (Newsflash: It’s more than just Argentine rabbis and musical instruments!)

More than “egal doesn’t matter anymore,” what I think Michaelson is arguing is that the heimishe quality found in Orthodox shuls needs to be a goal for Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative shuls. The attempts to make services more inclusive and accessible to everyone by calling page numbers, over-explaining and over-simplifying the liturgy, and presenting English readings with confusing themes that pose theological problems have caused a general malaise in these services. Not to mention, most Reform and Conservative services are taking place in buildings that are too large to create any sense of warmth or heimishe ambience.

Michaelson is correct about the roots of this culture. He writes:

The reason for this is historical: Reform and Conservative grew out of German Reform Judaism, which aped German Protestantism and tried to offer an edifying, formal service of moral instruction and beautiful music. It’s true, that this formality still does work for some people today — and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that — but has there ever been a sociological study to quantify its appeal? I’ll wager that these antique, even archaic forms work only for those who know and feel comfortable with them. But isn’t that exactly the complaint lodged against traditional Orthodoxy — that it includes some, but not others? If what we’re interested in is inclusiveness and egalitarianism, then we should try to offer a satisfying spiritual experience to as many people as possible.

Non-Orthodox shuls need to spend the next decade focusing more on the kavanah (the unbound spiritual search for devotion and intention) and less on the keva (the mindless following of the rote). The Orthodox service is less robotic, thereby allowing individuals to move at their own pace and find their own comfort zone within the service. I concur with Michaelson that synagogue leaders seeking to invigorate the service and empower the membership need search no farther than Rabbi Elie Kaunfer’s book Empowered Judaism, where Kaunfer writes “What the Jewish world needs is not more dumbing-down but more empowerment of individuals to opt in if they so desire.”

I also appreciated Michaelson’s apt view of how children should be treated in shul. He writes, “Of course, the kids ran around themselves too, as is the de facto culture in many traditional places of worship. This, my friend observed, was far better for the children’s sanity and their parents’ prayer lives. A few decades ago, we were told that the family that prays together, stays together. But if the family stays together in synagogue, often no one prays at all.”

This article should be required reading for synagogue leaders. There’s a lot we can learn from the culture that permeates Orthodox synagogues on Shabbat mornings.

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

Aaron Sorkin is Not Mark Zuckerberg’s Rabbi

In Entertainment Weekly‘s review of “The Social Network,” there is a wonderful quote from the film’s writer Aaron Sorkin (of “The West Wing” fame). In defending his decision to make the movie, which is critical of Facebook’s founder, Sorkin explains that he is not Mark Zuckerberg’s rabbi.

Here’s the entire quote:

The famously fast-talking Sorkin turns almost somber as he discusses the harm his movie could do to the 26-year-old tech tycoon’s reputation. “I’ll be honest with you, there were times when I had misgivings, when I felt like, he’s just too young, and a movie fires such a loud cannon shot, that maybe I shouldn’t do this,” says Sorkin. Then, sounding surer, he adds, “It’s not my job to help his image. I’m not his press rep or his rabbi. But in the end, I didn’t feel like I was damaging him. I felt like I was painting a painting of him, as opposed to taking a picture of him.”

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

Labels Can Be Good and Bad

I’ve been thinking a lot about labels lately. I recently wrote an op-ed about denominational labels in Judaism that was published in the Detroit Jewish News and on the Huffington Post website. In it, I explained how ambivalent I am about labeling individuals because these labels don’t always help us understand the individual better. Calling a Jewish person an “Orthodox Jew” doesn’t tell us much about them. In fact it only leads to misperceptions (Are they Modern Orthodox or Ultra-Orthodox? Are they actually unobservant, but affiliate with an Orthodox congregation?).

The analogy I’ve used several times in the Melton Scholars course on denominations that I’ve been teaching this fall has been that one could walk into ten different ice-cream parlors and find that each parlor sells an ice-cream labeled as “strawberry.” Yet, despite the identical label, each strawberry ice-cream will actually taste quite different. As I wrote, the woman who labels her religious affiliation on her Facebook profile as “Recon-newel-ortho-conserva-form” isn’t confused, hazy or even necessarily post-denominational. Rather, she is articulating the notion that we don’t have to choose just one label. There is much more cross-denominational activity today, and based on reader comments to my op-ed on Huffington Post, this is just as true in many other faiths as well.

In thinking of a photo I could use to complement my op-ed, I decided that a car bumper is often used to display ones ideological, political, and religious identity and affiliation. I imagined a car bumper with bumper stickers representing all the trans-denominational activities in which I’m involved –the pluralistic Jewish camp where I work, the Conservative synagogue where I’m a member and my children go to school, the Reform temple where I teach, the Reconstructionist congregation where I serve as the part-time rabbi, the Chabad-affiliated special needs for children organization I support, the community day school my child attends, and so on.

I didn’t manage to include all of those institutions, but I took a photo of the bumper on my wife’s minivan with several of these magnets (magnets seem to be the new bumper stickers and it’s nice that they’re temporary in these more transient times). In the end, I decided not to use that photo to accompany the HuffPo posting. (The photo on HuffPo is of a liberal Jew and a traditional Jew arguing as my friend and local rabbinic colleague Rabbi Arnie Sleutelberg looking on.)

I did, however, post the “bumper stickers” photo (above) on Facebook where it was viewed by my friend and colleague Rabbi Paul Yedwab of Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, Michigan. Rabbi Yedwab opened his sermon this Shabbat by mentioning my photo:

A friend of mine, Rabbi Jason Miller, whom many of you know, recently tagged a photo on his Facebook page showing a car bumper with a Temple Israel bumper sticker magnet (available by the way, on the table just outside the door if you’d like to sport one on your vehicle.) And, in this picture, right next to the Temple Israel sticker, is a Friendship Circle bumper sticker, a Hillel Day School bumper sticker and a Tamarack Camps sticker as well. And the caption under the photo reads: “Time to get a second bumper.”

I have long been fascinated by this concept of labels. Is the owner of a car really defined by the labels on her bumper? And if she were, how many bumpers would she need to let us know that she is a proudly Jewish, caring mom, tree hugger, vegetarian, Zionist, who is politically moderate, loves animals, nature, Swirlberry frozen yogurt, crossword puzzles, Gucci, Glee and her alma mater. Forget a second bumper; she would need a tractor trailer.

In our Torah portion, God is speaking to Abraham and telling him that he is going to have to take his son up to Mt. Moriah, there to sacrifice him on the altar. But the words God uses to break the bad news are very deliberate. Take your son, God begins, bincha, and then y’echidcha, your only son, asher ahavtah, the son you love, and then and only then, God finally identifies Isaac by name.

Now classically, the Midrash tells us that God stretches out his description of Isaac in order to break the bad news to Abraham slowly…gently. But I am not satisfied with that explanation. After all Abraham was not an idiot; he knew exactly to whom God was referring from the very beginning of that dreadful conversation.

So here is another interpretation. In our tradition God is the one being in all the universe who is ineffable, which means beyond labels. God is not a male or a female, a Democrat or a Republican (although you would never know it from some of the political ads that have cropped up recently). And, according to the Torah, God does not even have a name other than Ehiyeh Asher Ehiyeh, I will be what I will be, or in other words, you can’t put a label on Me. And therefore it follows that, since we human being are made in God’s image, God understands us too as holistic, complex, multi-dimensional creatures. No single label can fully capture the essence of a person. You know, that rabbi with the gray hair at Temple Israel. No, no, not him….the other one…the short one. Oh! Rabbi Yedwab. Labels really never tell the whole story.

So God tries to supply a multi-dimensional description of Isaac, whom after all is so much more than his position in the family, or the feelings his father has for him, or even his name. You know, Abraham: Isaac, the one whose essence is way beyond what any name, label or verbal description can possibly capture, your son, Yitzchak.

Rabbi Yedwab goes on in his sermon to mention some interesting new research that has been done recently into the field of language and epistemology, and then offers some suggested rules for communicating with our “necessarily insufficient words.” One of his rules is to stop communicating in Cyberspace. As a tech-embracing rabbi, I can’t say I agree with that proposed rule, although I concur that we all need to be mindful of how we communicate through technology.

Overall, I agree with Rabbi Yedwab’s message. Just like God, we humans are beyond labels. It is all too easy to assign labels to everyone we know and everyone we read about. The alternative is to use our God-given ability to communicate in order to learn about others. Rather than asking them what kind of Jew they are, we should ask more specific questions about their beliefs and their doubts, their affiliation, their education and their faith history. We should ask them what gets them out of bed in the morning and what do they do to recharge their spiritual batteries. And then we should listen.

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

Making Your Website Work for Your Synagogue or Jewish Organization

Cross-posted to the Jewish Techs blog (The New York Jewish Week)


Quite often I get asked to consult synagogues on their Web presence. The first thing I do is take a look at their current Web site and try to determine in which year it was created. I can usually tell its production date within a few years based on several factors. I then explain what a Web site should do today. After I explain its function, I let them know that the look of the site matters less today than its functionality. Today’s Web site needs to be an extension of the community the synagogue is trying to create (or in some cases, has already created).

If someone’s trying to find your synagogue’s location, they can use Google Maps. But if they want to interact with the rabbi about last week’s sermon, or find out who else is attending a class, or make a contribution online, or update their membership record (see: Chaverweb), then they will need to access the synagogue Web site.
In a brilliant article, Beth Frank Backman explains the need for today’s Web sites to facilitate community building. It should be required reading for every synagogue and rabbi interested in making social media and the other technology of today work for them in their mission.
Here is her article and I can only hope it’s prescriptions are followed. All emphasis in boldface is mine.
Does Your Website Push Information or Facilitate Community Building?
By Beth Frank Backman
Social media is much more than technology. It challenges us to rethink the nature and purpose of organizations and the reasons why we meet face to face. In doing so it will eventually force us to rethink the nature and role of the synagogue.
Will the synagogue of the future continue to be a coordination hub for Jewish education, bar and bat mitzvah preparation, Jewish identity activities, and prayer? Or will most of these functions move elsewhere, making the synagogue little more that a “meet-up” for ritually required prayer and life cycle events? Will it even be needed for those purposes?
In the future, even Hebrew school and bar/bat mitzvahs may no longer be a driving force in synagogue membership. Why cart kids half way across town to go to Hebrew school if the same learning can be had one-on-one via Skype? Imagine a world where bar and bat mitzvah tutors from Israel, Venezuela, San Diego and New York can be found in an on-line directory and are only a Skype call away. Imagine a world where one can find on the web free lance rabbis and cantors to lead private Shachrit and Mincha services in the Catskills, Rockies or Israel.
Imagine a world where kids form Jewish identity via summer camp and on-line networking with their camp friends throughout the year. Imagine a world where Jewish kids across the city keep in touch via Twitter and meet up at the movie theater or mall on Saturday night. What then happens to the traditional synagogue youth group? Why pay exorbitant synagogue dues just for Hebrew school training or the opportunity to participate in a youth group?
Much depends on how quickly synagogues see the opportunities of social media and incorporate them into their mission. Social media is allowing the traditional functions of the synagogue to be deconstructed and moved out of the synagogue. Many of these “imagined” services are already here and are beginning to generate loyalty.
This presents severe challenges for synagogues. The upcoming generation of 20 somethings sees on-line and off-line relationships as complements of each other.They expect communities where on and off line life create synergy with one another. Technology is fundamentally social and creates the infrastructure needed to maintain social relationships.
The current membership of many synagogues grew up in a world where real community is face to face. Technology is little more than a tool for delivering information. As a result of these differences, it sometimes hard for current membership to understand the need for a new type of on-line presence. When budgets are short there is little incentive to create a website for the Jewish community who has not yet shown up in the synagogue door. But if nothing is done, it is quite possible that the 20-something crowd may never show up.
Despite the challenges, at first glance it looks like synagogues are beginning to bite into social media. According to a study released by Jvillage Network, 66% of synagogues responding had a Facebook page. But a closer look at the data paints a very different picture.
Social media is much more than Facebook and Twitter. Even these classic social media tools can be used in ways that essentially ignore social media. Rather social media is an approach to technology that sees technology primarily as a way to create rich personalized two-way and multi-way connections criss-crossing a group of people.
To really grasp how a synagogue understands and uses social media we need to dig deeper and look at how and what kind of information is being shared on a website, Facebook page or twitter account. How does it build relationships? Is the information being pushed outward at people or are there genuine and personalized exchanges that create strong social bonds between members? When we look at how these tools are used, it is clear that synagogues have barely caught onto the idea of social media:
  • It appears that none of the synagogues surveyed had primarily community generated content and only 21% have blogs where community members can comment. In general, website updates are centralized in the hands of staff people or a dedicated volunteer. Content is being pushed from the synagogue to the members and occasionally from member to synagogue, but almost never from member to member.

  • Furthermore content pushed from the synagogue to members tends to be impersonal. While 49% of congregations updated their website with Jewish themed content and most had synagogue calendars, only 7% let members view their membership balances on line and only 4% use their website to help parents monitor their child’s progress in Hebrew school.

  • Personalized information moving from member to congregation tends to be limited to administrative matters: membership application, Hebrew school registration, RSVPs and payment for synagogue events. Even then less than 30% of congregations had one or more of those services. Only 14% had volunteer sign-up tools and only 2% could make changes to their membership accounts.

  • The impersonal nature of the websites is further underscored by the limited opportunities that members have to personalize their interaction with the website. Only 3% provide members a customized home page. Only 14% let users download the synagogue calendar into their personal calendars. 40% lack search functions making it impossible for users to go directly to the content most important to them.

  • Even support of off-line community building is weak. Only 15% provided their membership directory on line. Only 3% stream religious services for house-bound community members.

  • On the other hand, 40% accept on line donations. One has to wonder what message is being sent to members when donation features are more prevalent than features that support personalized member to synagogue communication.

  • The sense that websites are being primarily used to push information to members rather than to facilitate community building is also reinforced by an apparent lack of interest in even passive sources of community feedback such as website analytics. 66% of synagogues either are not or do not know how to use analytic tools to monitor website usage.
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Judaism and Sports

Last week I received a call from the producer of “Mojo in the Morning,” a popular morning radio talk show on 95.5 FM here in Detroit. She asked if I’d be willing to offer a prayer for the Detroit Lions. Knowing how funny the show is, I wasn’t concerned that the prayer would be taken seriously. So, I agreed to give a tongue-in-cheek prayer for our city’s woeful NFL team (audio below).

The following are the prayerful words I offered:

Our God and the God of our ancestors. The God of Billy Sims, the God of Barry Sanders, and the God of Eddie Murray. (It’s always good to invoke the name of a placekicker… God likes placekickers). Almighty God, Ruler of the universe, who is mindful of the desire for a playoff-reaching football team in this great city, Grant your mercy to the Detroit Lions. Heal their injuries, allow them to overcome their misery, and let us all forget their many seasons of woe. Let the defense divide before them like the Red Sea so they may go forth and scoreth and spiketh thy ball. In victory may they conquer every enemy team that comes before them. Give sight to the blind referees who error in judgement before Thee. And may You grant the Detroit Lions the power to grasp the Superbowl trophy. Ken Yehi Ratzon… And so may it be. And let all of the Detroit Lions’ faithful say ‘AMEN.’

Now, I don’t know if that prayer will work for a team that actually went 0-16 two seasons ago, but it was fun to be a guest on Mojo. An hour after speaking to the Mojo crew, I received an unrelated phone call from Alan Zeitlin, a reporter for NY Blueprint and The NY Jewish Week. He contacted me regarding an article he was writing entitled “By God, Should LeBron be Forgiven?”

Zeitlin wanted to know if I thought LeBron James, the star basketball player who upset just about every citizen of Cleveland by leaving the Cavaliers as a free agent to play for the Miami Heat over the summer, should offer an apology to the people of Cleveland for his actions. I explained that, while LeBron didn’t owe the city of Cleveland an apology, it would be nice if he did some soul searching about the way he went about his departure and then offered a sincere “sorry” to Cavaliers’ owner Dan Gilbert for not returning his calls in the weeks prior to his decision.

What was most interesting about Zeitlin’s phone call was the response he told me he received from other rabbis to whom he posed the LeBron question. Many refused to answer the question, explaining that professional sports shouldn’t be taken so seriously and Jewish people should get their priorities in order. One rabbi went so far as to call professional sports “idolatry.” Now, I agree that it’s important that we have our priorities in order (especially in the days before Yom Kippur), but I see nothing wrong with being interested in sports and discussing the off-the-court actions of superstar athletes.

Yes, there are many important issues going on in the world that should occupy our attention ahead of whether a star athlete should apologize to the city he departed as a free agent. However, sports in our country hold great entertainment value for adults and children. Cleveland fans have a right to be disappointed by LeBron’s exit and the way in which he exited. For professional sports franchise owners like Dan Gilbert, it is also a business and a financial investment, and he has every right to criticize an employee for leaving even if it was within the employee’s legal rights to do so.

I maintain that there is nothing wrong with having a discussion about whether a star athlete should do teshuvah (repentance). After all, many children look up to star athletes as role models and questioning their integrity and actions is fair game.

Praying for a football team to win a game? Well, that’s just tongue-in-cheek humor that makes for funny morning radio bits.


Rabbi Jason leads a prayer for the
Detroit Lions on the “Mojo in the Morning” radio show.

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

Why Chelsea Clinton’s Wedding Matters & the Celebrity Double-Standard

I’m hesitant to write about Chelsea Clinton’s upcoming wedding to Marc Mezvinsky, who was raised in Conservative Judaism, because I want to respect the private lives of the bride and groom. However, when the bride is the daughter of the 40th President of the United States, I suppose she is classified as a celebrity and her wedding is fair game as a topic for discussion.

This marriage will spark conversation in the Jewish world about two main issues: How intermarriage affects the Jewish community; and, whether there is a double-standard in the Jewish community when it comes to the intermarrying ways of celebrities.

David Gibson, in his article in Politics Daily, brings to light the key points surrounding this wedding. The question of whether Chelsea Clinton will convert to Judaism is something that Jews wonder (from Jews who are vehemently against intermarriage and those who are accepting of it). This high-profile wedding will bring many of the implications of intermarriage to a more public forum, forcing the conversation about, among other things:

  1. whether a rabbi should officiate at an interfaith wedding;
  2. whether intermarriage really erodes Jewish continuity;
  3. whether a non-Jewish mother can raise Jewish children;
  4. whether conversion for the sake of marriage is genuine enough to count; and,
  5. whether there’s a double-standard in the Jewish community when a high profile person marries outside of the faith.

Gibson quotes my colleague, Conservative Rabbi David Wolpe, who claims it’s his dream that Chelsea Clinton will convert to Judaism. Gibson also read the ongoing conversation at the InterfaithFamily.com website about Chelsea’s upcoming wedding.

In a lively discussion at the InterfaithFamily.com website, one commenter said that even if Chelsea does not convert, a rabbi should take part in the wedding “if the couple agrees to raise the children Jewish.” Another, however, cautioned that “this cannot be a Jewish wedding — a Jewish wedding is one where both people are Jewish, either by birth or by choice.” And yet another commenter gave what is perhaps a more characteristic answer: “I believe that Chelsea and her fiancé should do whatever will make them happiest.”

In real life, of course, questions about the role of religion often animate wedding planning, given that so many young people feel freed from old prohibitions against marrying outside the faith, if indeed they adhere to the religion of their parents or any religion at all.

Last month I was quoted in a Detroit Free Press article about interfaith marriage (“Do Interfaith Marriages Threaten Jewish Identity?”) and then took part as a panelist in a Free Press online chat on the subject.

After taking part in the online chat with Edmund Case, the CEO of InterfaithFamily.com, and an intermarried couple, I can only conclude that this is a very challenging issue because people’s lives, and children, and feelings of love and affection are in conflict with thousands of years of tribal law. It’s really about clubs and who can join and who can’t and who decides the rules.

Regarding the Gibson article in Politics Daily, my teacher Rabbi Irwin Kula comments, “This is great article for studying just about every pathology in American Jewish life… an entire article on intermarriage and Jewish weddings all about its threat and not one sentence on the possible meaning of the ritual that might actually create meaning and value. It’s chuppah/Jewish wedding as tribal marker and intermarriage as either threat to the tribe or grudging opportunity to increase numbers. Why should Chelsea convert? To make sure we don’t lose her kids to our tribe so worried about our size!”

Some interesting questions surrounding the Chelsea Clinton wedding should make this even more interesting:

  • The wedding will take place on Shabbat (July 31, 2010), so how will this affect whether observant Jewish (shomer Shabbat) guests will attend. Even if they stay within walking distance of the Astor mansion, according to Jewish law weddings are not to take place on the Jewish Sabbath.
  • If Chelsea does convert before the wedding, will her conversion be disputed publicly by the Orthodox who will claim that a Conservative (or Reform) conversion isn’t “kosher.” And, many will question her commitment to Judaism — didn’t she do this only for the sake of marriage and how much preparation and deliberation did she put into this?
  • If Chelsea doesn’t convert, how many of the Bill and Hillary’s Orthodox friends will attend the wedding anyway? Will their attendance at an interfaith wedding (and on Shabbat to boot) signify an endorsement? And what about Conservative rabbis who are technically not supposed to attend interfaith weddings? Will some make an exception for such notable nuptials?
  • Finally, might this high-profile interfaith wedding turn the tides and lead to greater acceptance and sensitivity toward interfaith marriage? After all, as Gibson writes, “The main body of Conservative Judaism [CJLS] voted to allow interfaith families to be buried in Jewish cemeteries, and in March, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America hosted a two-day workshop “sensitizing” students to “issues of intermarriage and changing demographics.” There is even talk of allowing Conservative rabbis to attend the interfaith weddings of friends — and this just four years after the movement adopted an official policy emphasizing the importance of converting a non-Jewish spouse.

Chelsea Clinton’s wedding is sure to grab headlines because of the main actors and the supporting cast, but in the Jewish world this wedding might just be an interfaith “game changer” in the hearts and minds of the Jewish people.

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