Israel’s Conservative Seminary Accepts Gays and Lesbians on Yom Hashoah

The Schechter Institute in Jerusalem is the Israeli affiliate of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS). It has publicly been holding out on changing its policy concerning the admission of gays and lesbians into its rabbinical ordination program (the only such program for the Conservative movement in Israel). That policy has caused much tension for rabbinical students from the Jewish Theological Seminary when they spend a year in Israel during the course of their study (gay and lesbian rabbinical students from JTS are allowed to take classes at Schechter). In fact, rabbinical students from the Conservative Movement’s West Coast seminary, the Ziegler School at the American Jewish University, study at the Conservative Yeshiva during their year abroad.

The big news coming out of Israel is that the Schechter Institute’s policy has just officially changed. It has been announced that at a board of trustees meeting last night, Schechter’s leaders voted to allow gay and lesbian students into its ordination program. That this policy change occurred on Yom Hashoah, the international day of commemoration for the millions who perished at the hands of the Nazis is especially meaningful as homosexuals were among those targeted by the Nazis in their extermination attempts.

While Israeli society in general is known to be tolerant of gays and lesbians, the Schechter Institute seemed determined to maintain its policy. JTS officially changed its policy concerning the admission of gays and lesbians following a vote in December 2006 by the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.

A seminary statement said the decision comes following a “long process”:

The Schechter Rabbinical Seminary views the serious process leading to this decision as an example of confronting social dilemmas within the framework of tradition and halachah, or Jewish law, Hanan Alexander, chair of the seminary’s Board of Trustees, said in the statement. “This decision highlights the institution’s commitment to uphold halachah in a pluralist and changing world.

Students are ordained by a beit din, or rabbinical court, made up of three members of the Rabbinic Advisory Committee of the seminary, all of whom are members of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Masorti/Conservative movement. The beit din members are chosen by the candidate and subject to the approval of the seminary’s dean. They have different opinions regarding the ordination of gay and lesbian students, according to the seminary.

This unique mechanism is an expression of halachic pluralism, one of the founding principles of SRS, the seminary said in its statement. The Seminary is a religious institution of the Masorti/Conservative Movement, bound by Halacha, whose inclusive approach allows for a variety of Halachic opinions.

The Conservative Movement’s Seminario in South America still maintains a policy barring affirmed gays and lesbians from matriculating in its rabbinic ordination program.

While it is odd that it took an additional five years from the time JTS opened its doors, I’m glad to see the Schechter Institute finally following suit.

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

Warren Buffett Invests in Chametz

Usually when Warren Buffett makes a deal it is the big news of the day on CNBC and in the Wall Street Journal. But the Oracle of Omaha’s recent deal probably won’t get much attention and it certainly won’t have to be reported to the Security and Exchange Committee.

The Omaha World-Herald reported today that Rabbi Jonathan Gross of the Orthodox Beth Israel Synagogue in West Omaha chose Warren Buffett to be the non-Jewish buyer of the congregant’s chametz (leavened food products that are forbidden on Passover). Buffett, at 81-years-old, is the third-richest man in the world with a $44 billion net worth according to the recent Forbes list of billionaires.

Warren Buffett accepts the four 50-cent pieces from Rabbi Jon Gross during the chametz sale.

While Jews are required to rid their homes, offices and automobiles of all chametz products, there is a “legal fiction” that allows Jews to “sell” leavened goods that can’t be thrown away to a non-Jew who then sells the goods back following the holiday. A rabbi usually serves as the agent who transacts the deal on behalf of the congregation or community.

Before transacting the chametz deal with Buffett, Rabbi Gross explained the custom to the famous investor and head of Berkshire Hathaway Holdings. According to the Omaha World-Herald, Gross said, “Price is low before Passover. Price is high afterward. It’s a great short-term investment. So who would really appreciate this better than Warren Buffett?”

“The beauty of being an agnostic is that you are in no position to make any judgment about anything,” Buffett said in an interview. “You can join in on anything.”

Buffett said he decided to participate because the annual pre-Passover chametz sale is “a ceremony of enormous importance to Jews.” The only problem with Rabbi Gross’ planned arrangement with Buffett was that Passover begins this year at sunset on April 6 and due to his busy schedule, Buffett wanted to meet in late February (six weeks before Passover). Gross decided to keep the meeting with Buffett, because he wanted to raise awareness about the need for donations to the Food Bank for the Heartland.

To complete the ceremonial chametz sale Rabbi Gross gave Warren Buffett four 50-cent pieces along with a bottle of single-malt Scotch, a loaf of home-baked challah bread, and Buffett’s favorite snack, a bag of Cheetos (which incidentally aren’t kosher, but Gross wrote on his blog: “Cheetos are not kosher, but there is no problem buying a bag of them for someone who is not Jewish.”). Gross also handed Buffett two sets of keys — one to Beth Israel Synagogue and one to Gross’ west Omaha home, where the box and drums of food are kept. (Buffett agreed to donate the food to the food bank.)

The Oracle of Omaha and the west Omaha rabbi shook hands to complete the deal and Buffett even returned the 50-cent coins to the rabbi. He joked that now that he knows the asking price — four coins — he’ll bargain down to two coins next year. “Why didn’t anyone tell me about this earlier? This is a great investment,” Buffett said. “I could have been doing this for years.”

Rabbi Myer Kripke with Rabbi Jonathan Gross in Omaha, Nebraska

Gross, an Orthodox rabbi, also included Rabbi Myer Kripke in the purchase agreement with Buffett and brought the 98-year-old rabbi along with him to Buffett’s office. Rabbi Kripke is a retired Conservative rabbi who has been friends with Buffett for over 50 years, since the time they were were neighbors in Dundee. Rabbi Kripke’s late wife, Dorothy, wrote a children’s book series entitled “Let’s Talk About…” and Warren Buffett’s wife loved to read those books to her children. When she learned the author lived close by in Dundee she wanted to meet her. That is how the Kripkes and Buffets became dear friends. In the 1960s Buffett had the Kripke’s invest a small inheritance they had received from a relative in Berkshire Hathaway and from that investment they became millionaires many times over. That fortune allowed Myer and Dorothy Kripke to donate $10 million to the Jewish Theological Seminary to rebuild the tower under which the couple had been married decades earlier. That tower, which originally housed the Seminary’s library was severely damaged in a fire in 1966. Today it is known as the Kripke Tower.

On a personal note, Rabbi Kripke was very helpful in connecting me with Warren Buffett in 2009 when my uncle was diagnosed with Pancreatic cancer and given only a few months to live. I called Rabbi Kripke and told him how wonderful it would be if my uncle could play a round of golf at Augusta National where Mr. Buffett is a member. Within ten minutes I received a call from Mr. Buffett’s secretary Debbie Bosanek, who told me that she just asked Mr. Buffett (who was on a trans-Atlantic flight at the time) and he explained that Augusta National members were no longer allowed to grant such requests. Well, at least I tried and I’ll always be grateful to Rabbi Kripke for his assistance.

Back to Rabbi Gross and his chametz sale to Warren Buffett. I think this was an absolutely brilliant idea that Rabbi Gross had because it will make the sale of chametz more widely known. Perhaps because of Warren Buffett’s connection with this story, more Jews will make the effort to rid their homes of chametz before the Passover holiday and ensure that they include their name in their synagogue’s chametz sale.

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

Beren Academy Will Play After All

Beren Academy is not the first Jewish day school to find itself in a Shabbat-related predicament at the end of the season. Many Jewish day schools are part of sports leagues with other private schools that are willing to accommodate the Jewish school’s commitment to observing the Jewish Sabbath during the regular season and not scheduling competition during those 25 hours of rest. The problem often occurs during post-season tournament play when a lot of games need to be scheduled in a short period of time.

On Thursday, the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS) backed down and agreed to allow Beren Academy’s semifinal basketball game to be rescheduled rather than face a legal battle. Several of the Orthodox players and their parents filed suit Thursday morning against the Mansfield Independent School District, the host of the state championship, and TAPPS in U.S. District Court alleging a violation of religious freedoms. Instead of contesting the matter in court, TAPPS gave in and amended the schedule to accommodate the yeshiva.

Coach Chris Cole and his Beren Academy players. (Photo: Samantha Steinberg/JTA)

Earlier this week at the Rabbis Without Borders alumni retreat, several of us discussed the Beren Academy case. There are certainly two sides to the case. While I believe in religious tolerance and am always grateful when institutions seek to accommodate individuals observing their religion, I also believe that there are consequences that must be accepted when upholding ones religious beliefs.

In the case of Beren Academy, the school was made aware that the yeshiva’s games would not be rescheduled in tournament play if they fell during Shabbat. This was articulated by the tournament organizers to the school before Beren Academy agreed to register. Furthermore, the Shomer Shabbos (Sabbath observant) boys should understand that when you keep the laws of Shabbat there will be opportunities that will be missed. One would imagine this would be something that their parents and teachers would explain to them. Those of us who observe Shabbat can list the many sporting events, concerts, parties, graduations and other events we have missed as a result of adhering to the sanctity of Shabbat.

I think that it is wonderful that TAPPS and the tournament host agreed to reschedule Beren Academy’s game, but had they held their ground this should have been something the players accepted. There is a common phrase in Yiddish — S’iz shver tzu zein a yid — that means it’s tough to be a Jew. We can’t expect the secular world to always accommodate us when our religious values come into conflict with regularly scheduled events. It is true that this wasn’t such a clear cut case in that there had been other accommodations for Seventh Day Adventists that amounted to precedent, but ultimately what makes being Shomer Shabbat so special is the knowledge that certain things are sacrificed to uphold the sacredness and sanctity of the Sabbath.

One of the truly amazing aspects of being part of the Rabbis Without Borders fellowship (which is run by Clal, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership) is the dialogue with colleagues from different denominations. I offered to include the viewpoints of my colleagues in this blog post and below are three opinions from members of my Rabbis Without Borders cohort.

Rabbi Jason Herman, an Orthodox rabbi in New York explains:

There is a Hasidic legend of a man who was offered a large sum of money by a king in exchange for a favor that would involve violating the Sabbath. The man declines but then presents the king with a gift thanking him for helping him realize that there was something in his life more valuable than the king’s treasure. The students of the Beren Academy in Houston faced the unfortunate circumstance where their request to have a high school basketball tournament postponed to avoid playing on the sabbath was denied. While these boys may be extremely disappointed and might even think the decision was unfair, they have the privilege of joining many generations of earlier American Jews who made tremendous sacrifices to observe the Sabbath. In doing so, we can hope that like the man in the story, they recognize that they have something in their lives that they value more than winning basketball tournaments. Yet, at the same time, while the league was in the right having told the school before they joined that they would face this issue, the league should reconsider its schedule for future years. The religious observance of student players is one that should be honored and for the sake of competition — the league and all schools involved should want to see the best team win.

Rabbi Hillel Norry, a Conservative rabbi in Atlanta, argues:

Would you change the date if it conflicted with Christmas? I think the obvious answer is, yes. The proof is that the tournament is not scheduled during church hours. The only arguments for not accommodating many different schedules and priorities is that the majority should dictate the results, and that if we accommodate shomer Shabbat Jews, then we will have to accommodate all scheduling needs. Unless you want a monolithic tournament that only includes the majority group and does not reflect the actual diversity of the community then the first argument fails on its face. And, yes I think we should accommodate many different needs – Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and many more. The basketball game is not more important than the creation of a large enough court to include all the players.

Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, a Reform rabbi in San Francisco, believes:

I am less concerned with what decision was made but with how the children will understand and interpret what they are seeing happen around them. It seems to me that the children who are going to play are learning that exclusion is more important than accommodation and full competition. To me this goes counter to the religious and athletic values being promoted by playing in this league in the first place. The children who are staying home are learning that the religious values that they are learning in school are worth sacrificing for.

The controversy seems to have been averted and Beren Academy will now be able to compete in the tournament. I wish them luck in their game and hope they emerge champions of the tournament. They won their case and managed to keep the Sabbath and keep their spot in the tournament. But I hope the lesson isn’t lost on them. In life, we often have to give something up to really appreciate the value that we hold dear. Shabbat it is a special gift that we Jewish people have, but sometimes it comes with a cost.

UPDATE: Beren Academy won their game today 58-46.

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

Rabbi – What I Really Do Meme

The “What I Really Do” meme has taken over the Internet.

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 I Really Do Meme - Rabbi
What Rabbis Really Do
And here’s my ‘CANTOR’ contribution to the meme:
What Cantors Really Do

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

Experiencing Israel’s Majesty Each Day Through New Mobile App Israel365

Cross-posted on the “Jewish Techs” blog on The Jewish Week website

Like many American rabbis who relocate to Israel on aliyah, Rabbi Naftali “Tuly” Weisz began to look for a way to make a difference in the Holy Land. The 30-something Modern Orthodox rabbi had already made some significant relationships with the Israel-loving Evangelical Christian community in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio.

Wanting to continue his outreach to the Evangelical Zionists, Rabbi Weisz decided to create a mobile app that brings the beauty and majesty of the Jewish homeland to their cellphones on a daily basis. So, he got to work on designing the right app that would be easy-to-use and attractive enough to look at daily.

The app, called Israel365, features a stunning visual image of the Land of Israel from more than 30 award-winning Israeli photographers. Each day, the photo of Israel appears alongside an inspirational quotation from the Bible in English, Hebrew and with English transliteration. Each day also includes an interesting historical anecdote and Hebrew lesson based on the Biblical passage geared to the Evangelical Christian community, but of course available for download by any fan of Israel. As a digital app, the daily photos can be emailed or posted to Facebook with the simple tap of the screen and shared with friends.

Modeled after the traditional daily desk calendars with inspirational quotes each day, the mobile app is currently only available for the iPod, but an Android app is already in the works by Weisz. For individuals without an iPhone can currently sign up for a daily email message that brings Israel365’s daily content to their inbox. In addition to releasing the app on alternative mobile platforms, Weisz plans to add additional foreign language translations to the app.

The Israel365 app was officially released on the first day of the new year by United with Israel, the world’s largest pro-Israel social community. United with Israel boasts nearly one million Israel supporters across the globe.Its founder Michael Gerbitz explained that the Israel365 app “will allow people to connect to the Land of Israel and its people on a daily basis.”

Weisz has spent the past several months creating the app and working with rabbinic colleagues and Evangelicals both within Israel and in the Diaspora to spread the word about the utility of the app. “Israel365 promotes the colorful beauty and significance of Israel instead of the conflict-ridden black and white landscape the traditional media emphasizes,” Weisz said. “Using innovative technology, the Israel365 app brings the diverse vibrancy of Israel to life in a modern and meaningful manner.”

No doubt that Weisz was already convinced of Israel’s beauty and deep connection to biblical history when he made aliyah with his family. Now, he’s sending the magic of the Holy Land to other lovers of Israel on a daily basis through mobile technology. Users can sign up for daily Israel scenes and inspiration at www.israel365.co.il or search the Apple App Store for “Israel365” to download the free iPhone app to connect with Israel each day of 2012.

Once again, The Jewish Week’s tech expert Rabbi Jason Miller will review the best Jewish mobile apps of the past year on the “Jewish Techs” blog and in the print edition of The Jewish Week. Check back in a couple weeks to see which apps made the list of “The Best Jewish Apps of 2011.”

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

Yes, An Orthodox Rabbi Can "Do" a Commitment Ceremony

Co-written by Rabbi Jason Miller and Rabbi Menachem Creditor

Our colleague and teacher, Rabbi Steve Greenberg, is an Orthodox rabbi who will go down in history as being the first Orthodox rabbi to officiate a Jewish commitment ceremony and civil marriage for two men. In a recent article in The Jewish Week, Rabbi Greenberg explained that this ceremony which took place in Washington D.C. was not a “gay Orthodox wedding” as was sensationally reported. He wrote, “I officiated at a ceremony that celebrated the decision of two men to commit to each other in love and to do so in binding fashion before family and friends. Though it was a legal marriage according to the laws of the District of Columbia, as far as Orthodox Jewish law (halacha) is concerned, there was no kiddushin (Jewish wedding ceremony) performed.”

Rabbi Reuven Spolter responded to Rabbi Greenberg’s actions in a blog post “Why Has My Yeshiva Not Revoked Steven Greenberg’s Semichah?” We write this as a response to Rabbi Spolter.

As two Conservative rabbis who were both ordained at the same rabbinical seminary, we also regard our semicha (rabbinical ordination) as a special honor whose legitimacy must be preserved. Like Rabbi Spolter and Rabbi Bernard Revel before him, we would hope that our rabbinical seminary would take back the semicha of a colleague who grossly violated either Torah law or civil law. However, Rabbi Spolter is mistaken in his characterization of Rabbi Steve Greenberg’s writings and actions.

Rabbi Greenberg has neither violated Torah law or civil law. He has used his rabbinate to help right a wrong. In officiating at a same-sex commitment ceremony between two men, Rabbi Greenberg may not have acted in a way that fits Rabbi Spolter’s belief structure, but he also did not violated any laws. The “to’eva” (abomination) in Leviticus speaks to a sexual act. No where does it discuss a life-cycle ceremony drawing upon the language of our sacred tradition to bless a relationship between two souls.

As to Rabbi Spolter’s concern with Rabbi Greenberg using the title “Orthodox Rabbi” (or more specifically: “Modern Orthodox Rabbi”), he should know that “Orthodox Rabbi” is not a halachic (Jewish legal) term. Rabbi Spolter would be hard pressed to point to any text in the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) in which the term “Orthodox Rabbi” is used. We are certain that rabbis in Agudath Israel of American (Haredi) do not consider Chovevei Torah (Open Orthodox) musmachim (ordainees) to be legitimate “Orthodox Rabbis”. I’m sure that any graduate of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), like Rabbi Spolter and Rabbi Greenberg, wouldn’t want to be lumped together with the “Orthodox Rabbis” of Neturei Karta (anti-Zionist Haredi). These are political distinctions with religious implications, but they are not halachic categories.

Rabbi Greenberg IS an Orthodox Rabbi in the sense that he received his semicha from RIETS. The way he uses his semicha is not “vulgar,” as you put it. To the contrary. Standing under the chuppah (wedding canopy) with two men who have committed to spend their lives together, raise a family and grow old with each other in a loving way does not negate a person’s ability to call himself an “Orthodox Rabbi.” Yeshiva University or RIETS could certainly yank Rabbi Greenberg’s semicha, but it wouldn’t be for a violation of halacha. Rather, it would be for his violating a social norm that makes some Jews like Rabbi Spolter uncomfortable.

The role of Judaism has always been to raise the mundane to touch the sacred. God’s world is full of opportunities for holiness. When two Jews find each other, and are prepared to enter into covenantal relationship, there is more than enough guidance that halacha provides to frame the moment. Furthermore, it is a responsibility we each carry as rabbis to stand with our People, person by person.

We hope that Rabbi Spolter and others will read these words from Rabbi Greenberg and try to understand why this Orthodox rabbi chose to courageously do what no other Orthodox rabbi before him had done:

Last December my partner and I returned from India with our newly born daughter. During the year of planning for her birth, I began to feel that I was failing as a rabbi to give young gay people hope in a religiously coherent future. As friends and students found spouses and decided to make families, it felt increasingly wrong to provide no context for commitment and celebration. Naming our daughter in an Orthodox synagogue and celebrating her birth there sealed my resolve.

While the condemnation of many is strong, I have received the quiet encouragement (if not always agreement) of a number of my Orthodox colleagues. While I do not expect other Orthodox rabbis to perform a ceremony of this sort any time soon, I do expect that we come to earn their understanding and respect as we take the frames of halacha seriously in the constructing of our committed relationships. In my view, the ceremony was beautiful, halachically informed and religiously meaningful, and I do hope that through consideration of it, the Orthodox community (and perhaps beyond) will come to recognize the human issues at stake.

We offer our congratulations to the two men whose relationship Rabbi Greenberg has helped to make sacred in our Tradition. We also offer our highest praise to Rabbi Greenberg and pray that he will serve as a beacon of hope to those in the Orthodox gay community who never thought they could be in a committed, blessed partnership.

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

In Response to Rabbi Shmuley and the Tiger Mom

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mitch Albom’s Having a Very Jewish Year

Last month when I encouraged my friends to attend the Michigan Jewish Sports Hall of Fame’s annual induction dinner I made certain to tell them that local Detroit sportswriter Mitch Albom was being inducted. I figured that would be a draw. I was surprised by the response that many of them had — “Mitch Albom’s Jewish?” they asked.

Mitch Albom’s Michigan Jewish Sports Hall of Fame plaque that will hang
in the Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit.

Apparently they hadn’t read his most recent book “Have a Little Faith,” in which Mitch Albom’s childhood rabbi asks him to deliver the eulogy at his funeral. The book has been turned into a made-for-TV movie and will be broadcast tonight at 9:00 PM on ABC. Some of the movie was filmed at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield with many members of the local Jewish community in the seats as extras. The movie stars Laurence Fishburne (as the late Pastor Henry Covington), Martin Landau (as Rabbi Albert Lewis) and Bradley Whitford (as Mitch Albom).

Growing up in Detroit and reading Mitch Albom’s sports columns since he arrived here in 1985, I have always known he was Jewish. It wasn’t a secret, but it also wasn’t something Albom discussed. I first met Albom in 1996 when he was honored by the Anti-Defamation League when I was serving a college internship there. I already owned all of his books which included several volumes of “The Live Albom” (collections of his sports columns) and his books about University of Michigan football coach Bo Shembechler and U-M basketball’s Fab Five dream team.

Meeting Mitch Albom for the first time in 1996.

Albom was already well known on the national scene as a sportswriter through his frequent appearances on ESPN, but it wasn’t until his autobiographical book “Tuesdays with Morrie” came out in 1997 that he gained international attention and local fame. There were only a few references to Albom’s Jewishness in the book and even when he spoke about the book at Jewish book fairs around the country Albom didn’t say much about his own faith. When I first met Rabbi David Wolpe in 1996 he told me that he had been a Jewish day school classmate of Mitch Albom’s at Akiba Hebrew Academy in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania (and that he was currently reading the galleys of a book Albom was writing about his college professor who had died).

His “Have a Little Faith” book was Albom’s first time publicly writing about his childhood in a Jewish day school and his relationship with his beloved rabbi, the late Rabbi Albert Lewis. While he doesn’t belong to any local congregation, Albom developed a nice relationship with Rabbi Harold Loss of Temple Israel, a very large Reform congregation in suburban Detroit.

With Mitch Albom and Dave Barry at an event in 2009 to raise funds
for Albom’s Hole in the Roof Foundation.

Perhaps due to the publication of “Have a Little Faith,” Mitch Albom is now more amenable to be honored by Jewish organizations. The ADL event where I first met him was much less a Jewish cause at the time and seen more as a humanitarian organization whose main project was the “A World of Difference” institute in which anti-bias education and diversity training were at the core of its mission. This past May, Albom received an honorary degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary, the same institution where his beloved Rabbi Albert Lewis had been ordained some fifty years prior.

Earlier this month Albom was inducted into the Michigan Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. His speech (video below) began with an apology that he had not been more involved in the Michigan Jewish Sports Foundation during his long career in Detroit. He then used the rest of his time to speak about his college professor, Morrie Schwartz, and the lessons he learned while caring for him as he lay dying in bed.

Albom has become very generous in his philanthropic causes relating to homelessness in the City of Detroit (a main theme of “Have a Little Faith”) and a mission/orphanage in Haiti. Albom’s Hole in the Roof Foundation helped raise and distribute funds to fix the roof of a church/homeless shelter in Detroit (I Am My Brother’s Keeper) and also rebuilt the Caring and Sharing Mission and Orphanage in Port-au-Prince, Haiti (where he has taken his childhood friend Rabbi David Wolpe).

The work he has done with his Hole in the Roof Foundation is certainly in line with Judaism’s value of Tikkun Olam (helping to repair the world). Perhaps Mitch Albom will also become more involved in local and national Jewish causes as he lives out the lessons he’s learned in life. He has certainly done a good job sharing the wisdom of his own teachers like Morrie Schwartz and Rabbi Albert Lewis.

Here is the trailer for tonight’s premier of “Have a Little Faith”:

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

Thanksgiving is Part of the Jewish Experience

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. It is certainly my favorite secular holiday. I love waking up on Thanksgiving morning knowing that it will be a relaxing day spent with family and friends. I will contemplate all the things for which I am thankful, including being an American.

This week one of my children asked if Thanksgiving was a Jewish holiday or if it’s a holiday that everyone celebrates. I explained that it was a holiday that everyone celebrates, but there are some Jewish people who do not celebrate it. Some observant Jews believe that Thanksgiving shouldn’t be observed because it is a holiday invented by gentiles and has no basis in Jewish law. Heshy Fried (“Frum Satire”) created an xtranormal video on the matter of why frum (religious) Jews don’t celebrate Thanksgiving including some of the unspoken traditions of frum families eating turkey for the Shabbat dinner on the Friday evening following Thanksgiving (but no stuffing!).

Thanksgiving in my opinion should be a day for feeling grateful. Even if we give thanks to God on a daily basis in our prayers, it is essential to take a day out of our busy lives to be thankful for our country. I believe that the consumerism and materialism that is Black Friday have begun to infringe on the Thanksgiving holiday. Stores that encourage shoppers to wait on line for the best deals on the night of Thanksgiving are contributing to our society’s loss of the ideals of Thanksgiving. A day that has long been set aside to be grateful has become corrupted by those willing to camp out on a sidewalk to save $100 on a substandard flat-screen television and the stores that are opening for those sales on Thanksgiving night.

Not all of my colleagues agree with me that Thanksgiving is a worthwhile secular holiday for the Jewish community to celebrate. My colleague Rabbi Jill Jacobs, a leading Jewish activist who is passionate about fair wage, public housing, and homelessness, is not a fan of Thanksgiving. She writes:

Personally, I’m not a big fan of Thanksgiving… My problem is not that I think the holiday is asur [forbidden], or even that I think that the sins of the Pilgrims overshadow any future attempts to find meaning in Thanksgiving. Rather, I find Thanksgiving to represent some of the blandest parts of American life. Thanksgiving has almost as many rituals as some Jewish holidays–there’s the Turkey carving (tofurkey in my house), the ritual foods, the football game, and perhaps the quick round of “What are you thankful for?” And then, the next day, there’s the shopping.
With the possible exception of butternut squash and pecan pie, none of these are rituals that I’m eager to incorporate into my sense of what it means to be an American Jew. I am proud to be an American because of the (sometime) history of democracy, opening our doors to immigrants, and pursuing equality for all. I wish that we honored this tradition by spending Thanksgiving protesting unjust policies and working toward just ones. I even wish that we spent Thanksgiving telling our own immigration stories, grappling with the complications of American history, and thinking about how we want to act in the future. (Yes–I know that AJC puts out an interfaith Thanksgiving Haggadah to this effect, but I haven’t heard that the holiday has drastically changed as a result).

Instead, we get a holiday that’s about stuffing ourselves, watching large & overpaid men jump all over each other (probably while women fans are encouraged to flash their breasts), and preparing to max out our credit cards yet again. (many people also spend time on Thanksgiving volunteering at a local soup kitchen, but–of course–these noble efforts do little to stop the growing incidence of hunger in our wealthy nation.) Other than (tofu) Turkey replacing (veggie) burgers, Thanksgiving is little different from July 4, Memorial Day, Labor Day, or any of the other holidays that have lost any real meaning and have just become one more excuse for gluttony and worship of the gods of commercialism. I’m proud to be an American Jew. But I’ll take mine without the cranberry sauce.

While I feel strongly that part of being thankful for what we have should include being charitable, I don’t think Rabbi Jacobs presents a fair picture of the American Thanksgiving holiday. I much prefer my colleague Rabbi Brad Artson’s take on the Thanksgiving experience. He writes in the Huffington Post:

The Sukkot theory of Thanksgiving is really great. And it could even be true. The only challenge is that I couldn’t find any colonial Puritan authors who made that claim. What is charming about it, nonetheless, is the resonance that so many Jews feel toward Thanksgiving. It is a very “Jewish” holiday, even if it wasn’t a Jewish holiday to begin with: Great meal, great company, celebrating life and joy and resilience and freedom in community. All values embedded deeply in Jewish tradition. 

But I’d like to invite us to a more nuanced and complex vision of what we can celebrate in Thanksgiving and in what we can dedicate ourselves to for Thanksgivings yet to come. 

The term “Jew” comes from the Hebrew word Yehudah meaning thanks, joy, gratitude. At the core of the Jewish way is a resilient joy that directs our attention toward the blessings we already have, those we need to work toward to realize, and the need to share those blessings in community. 

Turns out that Native American traditions have such a tradition as well — feasts of gratitude in which the abundance of the earth and community are shared, noticed and celebrated. So do most of the world’s wisdom traditions. 

When I was a child, the Thanksgiving story was presented as early Americans (the Pilgrims) hosting a meal of gratitude that hosted Indians. The Indians were guests, the Americans were European. And we latter day Americans focused on the nascent democracy found among the Pilgrims. 

As I grew and read, the circle expanded. I learned that the “Indians” were First Americans. They are not outsiders to America’s story, they have always been at its heart. So, Thanksgiving expanded to include two incompatible tellings — the tale as told by Puritans and a very different perspective as recounted by Native Americans. There was a bittersweet quality that joined the older narrative, a tale of displacement, of blindness to the wisdom and depth of the culture of First Americans, of their generosity in reaching out to the newcomers, of opportunities for cooperation and learning missed, of sheer survival against overwhelming odds. 

But the expanding circles keep growing. Shortly after that first Thanksgiving Africans joined this continent as unwilling captives enslaved to serve European farmers and merchants. They too were seen as outsiders, and they too are now an irreplaceable component of the American story. Another layer of grief and tragedy, but also of extraordinary courage, caring, persistence and faith was added to our complicated national identity. 

And the list continues to expand. First seen as interlopers, outsiders, group after group, moved from perifery to core, from alien to American: evangelicals, Jews, Irish, Chinese, Japanese, Mormons, Mexicans, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims — each community (and still others) contributed their stories, perspectives and traditions. These cacophanous tellings were first viewed as threats, eclipsing what it means to be American. Eventually we recognized each new tide as expanding, transforming and elevating what it means to be us. 

That process is by no means finished and is very much in process. Women made a claim to their own dignity and humanity — gaining first the vote, then growing power and a recognition for the distinctive ways that women add to American culture and vitality. Gays, lesbians and transgendered people have started to make themselves heard as participants and contributors, no longer tolerating those who would banish them to the margins. People with special needs are gaining a slowly attentive hearing — asking not for pity and charity but for access, dignity, partnership. 

Most recently, brave voices have started to speak on behalf of the rest of the biosphere and our beleaguered planet. Can one love America and rape the land? Is is possible to celebrate “from sea to shining sea” while depleting those oceans of diversity and life, while dumping so much carbon into the air that we are literally choking the plankton that helps our planet breathe?
As the circles expand to include those who used to be invisible, marginalized, despised, our tellings of Thanksgiving become more nuanced and layered, and they shimmer with flashes of color they previously lacked. We are all enriched to inhabit a world of raucous diversity and resilient inclusion. 

Our dinners may be less simplistic, and our giving thanks is now joined by taking responsibility. But as our telling swells to include many stories, we are made that much greater by the expansiveness of our humanity — warts, joys and all. 

And for it all, let us breathe deeply, take it all in and give thanks. God bless us, everyone!

All holidays are complicated. Jewish holidays are complicated and so are our secular holidays. It’s crazy that we Americans spend Memorial Day at the beach, on the boat, and at barbecues. It’s crazy that some Americans spend their Thanksgiving Day camped out on a sidewalk waiting for deals on big-screen televisions. But that shouldn’t dictate whether Jews should celebrate Thanksgiving. For me, it’s a special day that includes spending meaningful time with family and friends, watching parades and football games, and eating a delicious meal. For all that I remain grateful.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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

Join the Minyan with Skype

It was 1998 and I was in my first semester of rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary. My Talmud professor, Rabbi Avram Israel Reisner, approached me after class one day to discuss a project he was working on. As a member of the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS), he was examining the legal permissibility of a virtual minyan (prayer quorum). Knowing my interest in technology, my teacher picked my brain about some of the technical implications of video-conferencing. He sought to answer the halakhic (Jewish legal) question of whether a minyan could be convened using non-traditional, electronic means. Some of the sources he was considering were drawn from the same pages we were then studying in his class from Tractate Rosh Hashanah as it deals with hearing the sound of the shofar to fulfill the obligation.

Rabbi Reisner’s project resulted in a teshuva (legal position paper) titled “Wired to the Kadosh Baruch Hu,” in which he ruled that a virtual minyan conducted via video-conferencing was not “kosher.”

Now, one of my colleagues has opened his daily minyan through Skype access which brings this halakhic question back into discussion. Skype had yet to be invented back in 1998 when Rabbi Reisner considered the issues surrounding virtual minyan participation. In a bulletin article for his synagogue (reposted by the Rabbinical Assembly), Temple Emunah in Lexington, Massachusetts, Rabbi David Lerner refers to Rabbi Reisner’s published teshuva noting that he reasoned that should the technology come available the virtual minyan would be permissible.

Rabbi Lerner had good reason to open his daily minyan via Skype to those who couldn’t attend in person. One of his congregants, Maxine Marcus, lives in Amsterdam and works in The Hague, where she serves as a prosecutor of war criminals from the wars in the former Yugoslavia. Her mother recently lost her fight against cancer. After returning to Amsterdam following the funeral last fall in New York, Maxine how difficult it was to say Kaddish in Amsterdam. Rabbi Lerner made the decision to allow Maxine to participate in the Temple Emunah minyan through Skype.

Based on my reading of Rabbi Reisner’s teshuva, the issue of reciting kaddish as part of an already constituted real-time minyan was a separate issue from constituting a minyan via the Internet through video conferencing. Thus, so long as a minyan is already in place in Lexington, Massachusetts at Rabbi Lerner’s congregation, there was never a question about a “virtual participant” reciting Kaddish in that minyan.

Based on Rabbi Reisner’s conclusions, however, it would seem that even with Skype a minyan could not be constituted virtually meaning eight people gathered together could not be joined virtually by two others using Skype to count as a minyan. He writes that “a minyan may not be constituted over the Internet, through an audio- or video-conference or any other medium of long distance communication. Only physical proximity, defined as being in the same room with the shaliah tzibbur (prayer leader), allows a quorum to be constituted.” He goes on to explain, “Once a quorum has been duly constituted, those who hear the prayers being offered in that minyan may respond and fulfill their obligations thereby, even long distance.

With regard to the Mourner’s Kaddish, Rabbi Reisner concluded in the 2001 teshuva that “a mourner at a distance may recite it, but must be accompanied by a physical participant (a member who is physically present) in the minyan. This preserves the reason behind requiring a minyan for the recitation of Mourner’s Kaddish. It establishes community. Without this concluding statement, individuals might take it a step further and recite Mourner’s Kaddish on their own.” Therefore, as far back as a decade ago Rabbi Lerner was on firm halakhic standing to allow his congregant in Amsterdam to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish via Skype so long as at least one minyan member in Massachusetts accompanies her.

Rabbi Lerner reports that introducing Skype into his daily minyan has strengthened the minyan and has proven to be a very powerful experience. “Members of the minyan have gotten to know Maxine, schmoozing with her for a minute or two after minyan over Skype.” He also has found that opening his minyan virtually has impacted the general community. He wrote in his bulletin article, “This project enabled someone on the other side of the Atlantic to come and experience the power of God, the power of prayer, the power of community, and the power and support of a nurturing community around sacred occasions and after times of loss. His biggest challenge has been trying to encourage other congregations to invite remote minyan-goers to their minyan without letting it adversely impact on our minyan or attendance.

Kol Hakavod (kudos) to Rabbi Lerner for making good use of technology like Skype to allow a mourner in Amsterdam to find comfort with her community in Massachusetts. While Skype might still not be the technology that allows ten people to come together virtually in Cyberspace to form a minyan, it is certainly a great way to allow outsiders to join an existing minyan with a Web cam and Internet connection.

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