Politics Social Justice

Ted Kennedy

Leonard Fein, a celebrated writer and activist, tells the following story about the late Senator Ted Kennedy:

“On the morning of the day before the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin, Senator Ted Kennedy called the White House to inquire if it was appropriate to bring to the burial some earth from Arlington National Cemetery. The answer was essentially a shrug: Who knows? Unadvised, the senator carried a shopping bag onto the plane, filled with earth he had himself dug the afternoon before from the graves of his two murdered brothers. And at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, after waiting for the crowd and the cameras to disperse, he dropped to his hands and knees, and gently placed that earth on the grave of the murdered prime minister.

No spin, no photo op; a man unreasonably familiar with bidding farewell to slain heroes, a man in mourning, quietly making tangible a miserable connection.”

Senator Ted Kennedy

Senator Kennedy was a strong supporter of Israel and Soviet Jewry. Throughout his career, he was an ally of the American Jewish community. The legacy he leaves behind is an impressive one. As Rabbi David Saperstein wrote, “As a champion of the poor, the ill, the downtrodden, the very old and the very young, Sen. Kennedy’s unwavering passion for and dedication to imbuing the laws of the United States with justice and equality truly embodied the essence of social justice…”

May the noble actions of Ted Kennedy serve as an example for all humankind, and may his family be comforted by their memories of him.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Globalization Jewish JTS Social Justice Tzedakah

Ruth Messinger

Sometimes newspaper editors have to admit they got it wrong — or that their words were not clear enough and led to misunderstanding. Such was the case when Andrew Silow Carroll (editor-in-chief of the New Jersey Jewish News) wrote about Ruth Messinger’s speech to graduates of the Jewish Theological Seminary this past May.

Messinger (right) is the president of the American Jewish World Service and delivered an amazing commencement address at JTS, which is available as an audio file on the website. I first met Ruth Messinger during my final year of rabbinical studies at JTS when I invited her to speak to my fellow rabbinical students as part of a program I created called “Visions of the Jewish Future.” As president of the rabbinical school’s student organization I thought it would be beneficial to hear from some visionaries in the American Jewish community from outside of the Seminary’s gates.

Silow-Carroll wrote about Messinger’s speech in his paper, but Messinger wasn’t thrilled with the way he characterized it. His column was mostly complimentary, but he suggested that she had gone too far in favoring non-Jewish causes over challenges closer to home.

Upon reading the column, Messinger was hurt and requested a face-to-face meeting with Silow-Carroll in which she explained the many Jewish projects at AJWS and touted the new Web resource, an on-line compendium of rabbinic and contemporary texts on social justice. In my opinion, she really didn’t need to defend the work of her organization in this way. She should have merely mentioned the humanitarian work AJWS provides to the developing world and explained to Silow-Carroll that this is a very Jewish act.

In a follow-up column Silow-Carroll (left) acknowledged that he “hadn’t been aware of the Jewish learning that infused AJWS and should have asked. I also remembered that the Jewish world is big enough and rich enough to work on many levels, in many circles, in service of the local and the global. Those who would narrow the Jewish mission risk losing non-Jewish allies, young Jews interested in this kind of work, and the opportunity to live Jewish responsibility to its fullest.”

At the end of his column, Silow-Carroll explains that his meeting with Ruth Messinger prompted him to deliver a d’var Torah at his newspaper’s board meeting (something that hadn’t been done in a long time). He found a good d’var Torah at

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
College Globalization Jewish Social Justice

Ukraine Experience

From the American Joint Distribution Committee‘s website

Young Adults in Ukraine Inspire College Students from Michigan

From August 22-31, 2005, 15 students from University of Michigan Hillel traveled to Kiev, Kharkov, Sumy, and Konotop, Ukraine, where they joined their peers from Kharkov Hillel and the Jewish Youth Association to paint apartments of elderly Jews in need and to refurbish Jewish community facilities. Below, Sol, a Senior at the University of Michigan, reflects on his experience:Rabbi Jason Miller - Ukraine, JDC

It may have been our group’s 6th rendition of the Yiddish classic Tumbalalika that week, but we were still singing it just as loudly, clapping and dancing hand-in-hand with the elderly with the same exuberance and energy as the first five times.

Although our group — comprised of 15 students and two staff members from University of Michigan Hillel — may have arrived in the Ukraine with the lofty vision of inspiring and educating the local Jewish community, what we soon realized was that the locals would become our teachers.

Over the course of our ten day stay in Ukraine as part of a service program sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), Michigan Hillel, and Kharkov Hillel, and financially supported by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Mandell L. and Madeleine H. Berman Foundation, and others, we witnessed something that exceeded all of our expectations: the revival of a Jewish community, whose core is a group of young, bright, and promising individuals. Personally, as a child of Russian immigrants to the United States, it was immensely valuable for me to see this group of individuals that are not only leading their local communities in rebuilding, but led us, active students at University of Michigan, on a journey through Ukrainian-Jewish history past and present.

This educational and inspirational journey was one full of emotion: from saying Kaddish (Mourner’s prayer) for the hundreds of thousands of Jews massacred by Nazis in 1941 at Babi Yar to reading from a Torah for the first time since its arrival over five years ago at the revived Jewish community of Konotop.

Yet, the highs and lows of emotion we felt throughout this journey were fitting for a Jewish community that has suffered through so much, yet amazingly persevered to this day. This once vibrant Jewish community has suffered through mass murder at the hands of the Nazis along with repression under Soviet rule. But since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Ukrainian independence of 1991, the Jewish community has experienced an oft-turbulent path to revival. We were lucky to get a glimpse of that revival: hearing a student a Capella group sing Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem, interacting with kids at a special needs program at the brand-new JDC sponsored JCC, and picking potatoes for charity at a Jewish cooperative farm.

Rabbi Jason Miller - Ukraine, JDCWhile it is clear that these young Ukrainians left a lasting impact on us, it is also for certain that our being there, the simple notion that 15 young Americans would travel all the way to Ukraine just to show support for its budding community, meant a lot. Regardless of what one may consider the best future of Ukrainian Jewry — whether it be mass immigration to Israel or a steadfast commitment to rebuilding their community locally from the ground up — it would be erroneous to consider their community dead. Witnessing a newly reopened and refurbished synagogue, a boisterous and smile-laden Shabbat service and dinner, and even a young and rising Jewish Ukrainian rapper, one thing is more crystal-clear than Ukrainian vodka: this community is alive. Alive and dancing.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |