Boy With Stutter Raps Adon Olam

I was looking forward to meeting many of the inspirational educators and thought leaders at the #140edu conference in New York City this week, but the one speaker I was really excited to meet was Lil Jaxe.

A few months ago, I watched a video of this 13-year-old boy at a previous #140conf and was amazed, impressed, and inspired. Lil Jaxe has a severe stutter, but he discovered that when he raps it goes away. So, it’s a good thing for him that he’s a talented rapper. And he’s only 13 so I’m predicting that he’s got a very successful career ahead of him.

Lil Jaxe presented before me at the #140edu conference today and I had a chance to shmooze with him a bit in the Green Room at the 92nd St. Y after his presentation. Here’s the video of our discussion which includes him rapping the Jewish prayer Adon Olam as he did back in April at his bar mitzvah.

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

Bar and Bat Mitzvah Etiquette for Teens

When I was twelve-years-old I took part in a Joe Cornell dance class with just about every other Jewish teen my age in Metro Detroit to prepare for the bar and bat mitzvah circuit. When my mother was twelve she also learned to dance from Joe Cornell. It’s something of a Detroit tradition.

While Joe Cornell has been retired for many years, the company is still around (after more than fifty years) and has actually grown immeasurably over the past decade under the leadership of owners Steve Jasgur and his sister Becca Jasgur Schlussel. In addition to providing DJ services and dancers for bar and bat mitzvah parties, Joe Cornell still runs its “Learn to Dance” dance studio for the pre-bar and bat mitzvah crowd.

My own children are still too young to even be thinking about attending bar and bat mitzvahs, but I read with interest an article about a new program that Joe Cornell is running at local Hebrew Schools and day schools. Patch.com reported on Joe Cornell’s Mitzvah Circuit 101 gatherings, which teach b’nai mitzvah etiquette to teens. Attending bar and bat mitzvah services and parties requires a lot of social cues that many twelve- and thirteen-year-olds don’t yet possess or at least haven’t yet had to draw upon. I remember my parents teaching me the etiquette for responding to a bar or bat mitzvah invitation before attending my first one, but there are still many other aspects of good manners that these children (and they are still children) must learn.

“We were asked to speak to a group of students about how to behave, respond to invitations and socialize successfully and we jumped at the chance,” Jasgur said. “It was great fun – and the kids really got into the discussion of do’s and don’ts. Then, of course, we had to add an element of fun to the night, so we gave the group a taste of the kind of Joe Cornell fun they’ll see at b’nai mitzvah parties this year.”

“In preparation for the 7th-grade social scene, our dance program teaches 6th-graders social interaction and social responsibility,” Schlussel said. “This Mitzvah Circuit program is simply an extension for that 21st century cotillion-style preparation we specialize in. We all want our children to be gracious guests, but sometimes the lessons hit home more readily when conveyed by someone new.”

When I was a twenty-year-old youth group adviser I was asked to be on a panel that discussed teens’ behavior at bar and bat mitzvahs in front of an audience of parents. I remember thinking how ironic that was since it was only seven years earlier that I was one of the misbehaving teens at these parties. In recent years, however, I have certainly noticed that teens are better behaved at both b’nai mitzvah services and the parties that follow. I think it’s imperative that these middle schoolers are learning about the etiquette required at bar and bat mitzvahs as it will improve the experience for everyone, and I’m glad that Joe Cornell Entertainment has taken the lead on this.

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

Masei – Jewish Summer Camp

This Shabbat, we read the final Torah portion from the book of Numbers, Parashat Masei. This section of the Torah begins with an extensive list of the places our ancestors traveled through on their way to the Promised Land. It details their stops and encampments as they walked through the desert wilderness eager to arrive in Canaan.

It’s appropriate that we read this section of the Torah during the summer as thousands of Jewish children and teens are experiencing their own journeys at summer camp. For so many Jewish youth, the summer camp they attend is their Promised Land. It is a place of refuge they look forward to each year.

In the Torah, there is precedent for Jewish camping. In Genesis, we learn that our patriarch Jacob must have attended sleep-away camp for it says: “Jacob slept at camp” (v’hu lan balilah hahu bamachaneh) (Gen. 32:22). And in Exodus, when the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, the Torah teaches that Moses returned to the camp (v’shav el hamachaneh) (Ex. 33:11). And then, in the book of Numbers, we are told that all of the Levites go to camp (v’halevi’im yachanu) (Num. 1:53). And finally, in Deuteronomy the Torah even tells us “the Lord your God walks in the midst of your camp” (ki Adonai Eloheicha mithalech b’kerev machaneicha) (Deut. 23:15). So there is clearly a long-standing tradition of Jews and summer camp.

Today, thousands of Jewish children attend summer camps like Camp Hiawatha, Camp Tomahawk, Camp Tamakwa, Camp Tamarack, Camp Al-Gon-Quin, and the like. A comedian once noted the humor of all these Jewish kids going to camps with Indian-sounding names. He surmised that somewhere there are American-Indian children spending their summers at Camp Oy-Vey-Ismier.

The statistics show that the Jewish summer camp experience has tremendous effect on children. A Moment Magazine study suggests “that children who go to Jewish camps come home with a much stronger sense of their Jewish selves. Community based studies across the United States show that Jewish campers consistently marry Jews more often and belong to shuls in greater numbers than non campers. Most Jewish professionals — whether at the pulpit, in the classroom, or in the community-at-large — say they discovered or consolidated their Jewish identity at summer camp.”

Today, our non-profit Jewish camps need our support more than ever. The majority of Jewish camps are non-profits and they simply cannot compete with the lavish facilities and stellar sports programs at the privately owned, profitable camps. We want our children to experience everything our Jewish camps provide, but we also want our children to be comfortable and to have an abundance of resources. It should be a top goal to get our Jewish summer camps up to the same physical quality as the best secular, for-profit camps, offering specialized activities in the arts, sports, and outdoor adventure; and, with a spectacular professional staff that is second-to-none. It should be a top goal for scholarships to be made available to any family who needs assistance in sending their children to camp.

To Jewish educators like me, Jewish camps are the canvas on which we can create future leaders in the Jewish world. Summer camp may only be two months out of the year, but the experience is for a lifetime. No longer can we keep our eyes closed to the importance of Jewish summer camps. For the sake of the future of our Jewish communities, let us strengthen our camps so we can strengthen the Jewish people.

Shabbat Shalom.

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

Bar Mitzvah Lessons in Cyberspace

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

Why shlepp your kid to the synagogue for her bat mitzvah lessons when she can dial in virtually?

A recent article in the New York Times shows how the tech savvy bar mitzvah tutors have taken to the Web to make the process more convenient for them and their students.

If dating, shopping and watching TV can be revolutionized by the Internet, why should bar and bat mitzvahs be immune? Parents who once might have turned to their local synagogue for Hebrew lessons and spiritual guidance are now turning to Google, where a quick search on “bar mitzvah” turns up sites like MyBarMitzvahTeacher.com (“the easiest way to prepare for your bar mitzvah”), barmitzvahlessons.com (“NO synagogue fees, membership dues, building fees”), and Jewish-Wedding-Rabbi.com, whose founder, Rabbi Andrea Frank, also conducts other “life cycle” ceremonies, including pet funerals.

Need to learn the prayers that precede the Torah and the accompanying haftarah readings? There are YouTube videos for that. At OneShul.org, “the world’s first community-run online synagogue,” the founders imagine Web-only bar mitzvahs, with an e-minyan, or group of 10, gathered via Skype. And they have a citation from Maimonides to prove it’s O.K.

There have always been families who bypassed synagogues for their children’s bar mitzvahs, traveling to Israel or holding a ceremony in a hotel. But, limited by geography, they generally worked with tutors who lived nearby. And while the new do-it-yourself approach has been enabled by the Web, it has its roots in demographic and attitudinal changes among American Jews, who are increasingly less likely to join synagogues, just as more of them marry outside the faith.

“Our generation doesn’t view Judaism as an obligation,” said Rabbi Jamie Korngold, aka the Adventure Rabbi, who offers an online bar mitzvah program. “It’s something that has to compete in the marketplace with everything else they have in their lives.”

No doubt, many traditionalists will find the idea of Jewish pre-teens logging in to learn their bar or bat mitzvah portion unappealing. Some will argue that part of the experience is the face-to-face tutelage with the cantor. Others will scoff at the change noting that if previous generations had to endure the hours of preparation in the synagogue, then so should today’s generation of would-be b’nai mitzvah.

Of course, many will simply note this as one more way technological innovation has changed the way synagogues do business. And if 12-year-olds can log off Facebook for a few hours a month to learn their haftarah, then that’s a good thing… isn’t it?

Read the entire NY Times article, “Bar Mitzvah Studies Take to the Web,” here.

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

Yes, Jews Rock Too

Here’s my latest post for the Community Next blog “Rabbi J in the D”:

We all know that Jews can rock. After all, you only need to listen to Bob Dylan or Gene Simmons of Kiss to know that. But there are also some Jewish singers who are rocking Jewish music… and I don’t mean Jon Fishman leading Phish in “Avinu Malkeinu.”

I remember in 1999 when the Jewish rock star Rick Recht came to the Jewish summer camp where I was working (Camp Ramah in Nyack, NY). He had all the little kids dancing and screaming like they were at an arena concert with 20,000 fans. Then he worked his way into a cover of a Dave Matthews song and had the teen and 20-something staff members hooked.

Recognizing that there was a need for an Internet radio website dedicated to Jewish rock music, Recht has created Jewish Rock Radio. “Jewish Rock Radio was launched to provide a mass communication channel utilizing the power of music to attract, inspire, entertain, and educate Jewish youth while providing information about a variety of meaningful engagement opportunities for Jewish youth.”

The channel will expose new and established Jewish artists, as well as provide education for artists to professionalize their music and marketing. Recht didn’t want to simply create another Internet music channel. He wanted to give back to the Jewish youth who have been his biggest fans through Jewish youth groups and Jewish summer camps. As the site explains, Jewish Rock Radio is also “for Jewish youth to share their experiences with each other about a variety of national Jewish programs in which they have participated; and, to inspire and create a ‘path’ for Jewish youth to participate in Jewish life as Jewish composers, performers, songleaders, and teachers.”

Jewish Rock Radio (JRR) is the flagship program of Judaism Alive, a nonprofit 501(c)3 formed in 2009 to strengthen Jewish identity and connection for youth through their love of music, musical instruments, and online interaction. While Jewish teens will continue to fill their iPods with Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, now they just might add some Jewish rockers to their playlist like Naomi Less, Blue Fringe, Josh Nelson and Socalled.

Cross-posted to the Jewish Techs blog

(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

Email, May it Rest in Peace

Cross-posted at Jewish Techs
Email is like a cat. I don’t know if it has nine lives, but people still use this form of communication even though it’s been pronounced dead many times in recent years.
The general consensus among experts in online communication is that social media is killing the medium of email. Just as companies and organizations are getting pretty good at making their email newsletters look professional, it seems that more people are rendering email as the means of communication from a bygone era (sorry ConstantContact.com!).
As a rabbi who has worked a lot with Jewish teen communities, I learned a few years ago that teens had given up on email. To reach their virtual inbox, the communication has to come in the form of a text message, online chat, or Facebook message. For the young generation that’s never had to handwrite a letter, email just seems too formal.
Once I noticed that teens were neither reading nor replying to standard email messages I decided to give out my cellphone number. All of a sudden I found that the communication with the teens was flowing via text messages.
I’m not saying that teens will look at an email account the same way they look at a Fax machine or a VHS tape, but they’re preferred method of communication doesn’t involve the @ sign.
So, how does one reach the target audience if email is dead (or at least on life support)?
Englin Consulting added its voice to the “Email is Dead” discussion by blogging:
“…the advent of devices like iPhones and Droids that make it easy to quickly delete emails without even looking at them, plus the spreading reach of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, plus the email overload many people experience in their inboxes equals the demise of mass email lists as a productive tool. Facebook’s COO recently revived the debate, saying that because young people don’t use email the demise of email is imminent.”
However, the consulting firm still maintains that email is an important and effective commuications tool, albeit one that could use some strategic rethinking.
On its blog they offer three things to consider about your organization’s email list, including 1. Size matters; 2. Content matters; and, 3. Email matters.
Email isn’t dead, although it’s dying. A recent study, quoted by Englin Consulting, reveals that 58% of people check email first thing in the morning before doing anything else online. And mass email lists remain a critical and even growing component of many organization’s fundraising, advocacy, and education program — one that still delivers results. However, that same study showed that more than 10% of people log onto Facebook first thing, 20% start with a search engine or portal site, and 5% head first to online news.
Businesses and organizations need to be more creative with their email marketing. Maybe social media hasn’t killed email, but it’s certainly giving it a beating… Don’t believe me? Just go here and click the “SMACK” button.
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

The Cap & Gown Section

I’ve long had a love-hate relationship with the Detroit Jewish News‘ “Cap & Gown Yearbook.” Started in the late 1980’s, the JN includes an entire section in one of its late-May issues devoted to the “best and brightest” high school graduates in the area.

Before I comment on this year’s change in the submission rules, allow me to explain the love-hate relationship I’ve had. [Full disclosure: I cannot include the Cap & Gown issue on my CV.]

I loved the Cap & Gown issue when I was working at the University of Michigan Hillel Foundation in Ann Arbor. At the end of each graduating senior’s bio (AKA “Brag Paragraph”), it listed where they were headed for college. The vast majority were either going to Michigan or Michigan State with a couple handfuls of Ivy Leaguers. Each year when the Cap & Gown section was published, I immediately tore out the pages from the newspaper and marked the incoming class of Jewish kids at U-M with my yellow highlighter. These would be the first freshmen I’d welcome to campus in the fall. Their high school accomplishments were listed right there. I knew who the Jewish youth group leaders were and which of these 18-year-olds had volunteerism in their DNA. The Jewish News was doing my reconnaissance work for me.

Working with high school students is a different story. They are already under such pressure to succeed in high school that making the cut for the Jewish High School Academic Hall of Fame only adds to the stress. Over the past couple decades, the standards for inclusion in the Cap & Gown section have changed. When I was in high school (Andover Class of 1994 for those of you scoring at home), seniors needed a minimum grade point average (GPA) and had to be chosen by their school. That meant it was much more difficult to be one of the top Semites at predominantly Jewish schools like West Bloomfield, Bloomfield Hills Andover, and North Farmington than it was at say Birmingham Seaholm, Detroit Country Day, or any of the Walled Lake schools (this was the 90s after all). In fact, I remember one of my peers from West Bloomfield High School complaining to the Jewish News that she should have been included even though her GPA wasn’t at the newspaper’s standard. She was the editor of the school paper, president of her Jewish youth group, and had a handful of other notable credentials. The paper caved and printed her bio the week after the Cap & Gown issue alongside her irate letter complaining of the unfair selection process.

In the past decade, the standards have eased and there are a lot more graduates included in the Cap & Gown issue. Only 40-some Jewish teens were honored in the first Cap & Gown Yearbook in the late 1980’s, but last year’s section included 224. Even with that many star teens included, there are still many talented and accomplished teens who are left on the sidelines.

As the paper explained in a March 2010 blurb: “[E]very year, whatever criteria the newspaper used to determine eligibility would leave out many deserving students. This year, the Jewish News is inviting every Jewish student who is graduating from a Michigan high school to be part of our new Cap & Gown Yearbook. Publisher Arthur Horwitz said, “We’ve grown from several dozen entries to well over 200 of our community’s high school seniors who attained a qualifying grade point average. It has been one of our most popular issues and a keepsake.”

So, the question is: Why after 20 years of a competitive process (on varying levels), has the Detroit Jewish News decided to include every graduating Jewish high school student into the Cap & Gown Yearbook? Here are some theories:

1) It’s the Economy Stupid: It’s no secret that print media is in hospice care. Newspapers are ending home delivery and magazines are closing (Newsweek was put up for sale just yesterday). The Jewish News has laid off most of its workforce and reduced the hours of those who are left. The Cap & Gown issue generates a lot of money from proud parents, bubbies and zaydies who take out paid advertisements to congratulate their graduates. I’m sure the thinking was that the more teens who are included in the Cap & Gown Yearbook the more ad revenue. And that’s just business — plain and simple.

2) Everyone’s a Winner: In the 21st Century, we’ve become more politically correct and therefore uncomfortable to proclaim winners. The Jewish News simply doesn’t want to be put in a position to say that this young person is an achiever while this one is not. It’s not good for PR (or for selling newspaper subscriptions for that matter) when people perceive that the community’s paper has rejected their daughter.

3) Whose Standards?: I’m hoping that this was ultimately the reason the JN decided to let all who have graduated come and be recognized. Ideally, the Jewish News has realized what most employers realized a long time ago. A person’s GPA only tells part of their story. The many high school graduates who lacked book smarts but spent their high school careers volunteering with disabled children, working part-time jobs, and starring in school theater productions should be celebrated alongside the bookworms who carried 4.0 averages with little extra-curricular notches in their belts.

I’m sure that the Jewish News’ decision to not exclude any Jewish teen from this yearbook was based on a combination of all three of these theories (and likely others too). After all, this also put the Jewish community’s newspaper in the awkward position of deciding who is a Jewish teen. Of course, with every graduating senior being included, the Cap & Gown Yearbook will undoubtedly lose its clout. Will parents be as honored when they see their 3.9 GPA varsity soccer captain who’s headed to Penn listed in the paper next to a 2.0 GPA kid who’s off to Oakland Community College in the fall? We’ll see about that.

The paper articulated the mission of its new Cap & Gown section, explaining, “In recognition of the achievements of all of our high school graduates, this year’s Cap & Gown will be expanded. Think of it as a community-wide version of a high school yearbook. It will show the continuing vitality and promise of our community’s future generation, and the array of higher education choices they are making.”

I’m all for showcasing the promise of our Jewish community’s future generations. I’m just wondering if the lack of a selection process will make this issue too heavy to hold… which I guess is a really good thing for both our community and the Detroit Jewish News. Mazel Tov to all of this year’s high school graduates. You’re all winners!

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

Siddur It Yourself: BBYO’s Build a Prayer Site

Cross-posted at Jewish Techs

When it comes to Jewish prayer, there are two schools of thought: keva and kavannah. Keva means “rote” and refers to the fixed prayers that are set forth in the siddur (Jewish prayer book), while kavvanah is the free and spontaneous inner devotion of the individual.

Many Jewish youth groups and Jewish camps have tried to bridge the gap between the opposing principles of keva and kavannahby creating fresh and innovative prayer books for each service. For generations, Jewish teens, educators, and camp rabbis have spent hours photo copying prayers out of the standardized siddur and pasting them onto sheets of paper along with spiritual poems, catchy songs, motivational quotes, and clip art to make custom service booklets. The interweaving of traditional liturgical texts with hippie quotes and Debbie Friedman songs to create a specialized prayer book offers the keva of the siddur, but encourages the self-expression and spiritual spontaneity that is at the heart of kavannah.

Now the market leader in pluralistic Jewish youth programming, BBYO, Inc., has launched a web-based application to design custom-made prayer books. Build a Prayer, which took almost two years to develop and is being funded through a Jewish Funders Network grant, offers every text imaginable, from Hebrew, English translation, transliterated, traditional, and pluralistic. Service creators can choose from pictures, poetry or commentary, and then share or print the service for use with their community. MyJewishLearning.com partnered with BBYO and provided the educational content about Shabbat and prayer for the online Resource Center that is built into the site.

Build a Prayer isn’t only for the teenage members of BBYO. Matthew Grossman, the organization’s Executive Director said, “We hope Build a Prayer will be a valuable tool for the entire community; it is available to any organization, educator or teen who wants to produce creative worship experiences.”

After a guided tour of the Build a Prayer site by Michigan BBYO Director Eric Adelman, I played around with the many features and found it to be user friendly, interactive and intuitive. As someone who has created many custom prayer books and song sheets, and who likes a crisp, clean look, I really appreciated how professional looking the finished product turned out.

To learn more about the concept of BBYO’s Build a Prayer and to find out if the organization was worried that Jewish teens would miss the scissors and glue part of DIY siddur making, I posed some questions to Shayna Kreisler, the Director of Civic Engagement and Leadership at BBYO.

Who came up with the idea for the Build a Prayer site?
The original idea came out of the observation that at BBYO, we see teens and staff members creating relevant and powerful Shabbat services, but also feeling challenged since most of them have only experienced services within their own synagogue. This challenge is made more difficult since most teens aren’t comfortable in a traditional siddur – they don’t know where services start and end, what to include or what is “safe” to leave out. To meet that need, these worship services are typically guided by a teen-designed collection of songs, poetry and prayers that is compiled through an effort of photocopying, cutting and pasting together old song sheets and prayer book passages. As an organization, we saw the need to provide Jewish teens with an accessible place to explore prayer and its meanings – doing it online also happens to save some glue.

Was there a “grassroots” push from teens to create this resource?
I think that we were really responding to a need that we had been hearing from the field – BBYO, because we are not affiliated with a movement, does not have one single prayer book that we all use. Each region and community ends up making their own or creating new services for each chapter overnight, regional convention, etc. The teens that I work with on the International level were having issues finding the resources online, so while they did not know to ask for it directly, it was certainly a need that was being presented in the difficulties they were having in finding the appropriate resources.

Who runs the site?
BBYO runs the website, but we work in partnership with other organizations (currently, The Foundation for Jewish Camp and MyJewishLearning.com) and are looking to build more partnerships around the website. We really feel that this is a value added resource for the entire Jewish community for a plethora of uses – independent minyanim, youth movements, day and overnight camps, b’nai mitzvah students, parents of b’nai Mitzvah who may not be as familiar with the Shabbat service as they would like, educators working with teens or other age groups, and more!

What has the feedback been from teens?
The teens LOVE it. We have received some really positive feedback about the resource and how it has changed the way that people look at the Shabbat Service. Eventually we hope to add in holidays, the weekday service, a haggadah, etc. Most of the feedback we receive is from people saying that the site is great and it would be amazing if it could do x, y or z. We take the feedback very seriously, and we are trying to respond to the needs of the community. I encourage anyone who has any feedback to email us directly through the website.

Was there any concern that teens would feel nostalgic for the old-style cut and paste prayer books?
The BEST part of the website, in my opinion, is the content finder. Once you start to build a Shabbat service, and choose your languages, the type of service you want to create and your prayers, you can start to add in your own poems, lyrics, translations, thoughts, videos, audio, images – almost anything really! And all of that info gets stored in the content finder for others to utilize. The more people add in their own content, the more rich the website becomes as a tool. We really look at that piece of the website as a way for people to share their thoughts and ideas and their creative work with the entire community. In a way, buildaprayer.org takes the scissors and paste concept and brings it into the 21st century. I really do not think that we lose anything at all – I think it really opens up the Shabbat experience in a whole new way.

It is difficult to find a siddur that really fits an individual’s or a community’s needs completely, but with Build a Prayer it becomes much easier to make a custom fit prayer book that will encourage both keva and kavannah. On behalf of Jewish educators, youth group workers, and camp rabbis everywhere: Thank you BBYO!

Here is the video tutorial for the interactive Build a Prayer site:

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

Yom HaShoah: From "The Camps" to "Camp"

On an early morning this past June, I stood in a synagogue parking lot taking temperatures of the Jewish children before they boarded the buses to take them off to summer camp. Along with every other staff member in the parking lot, I was wearing a brown shirt — the official staff shirt of the summer. It isn’t common practice to take each camper’s temperature before they board the bus, but in 2009’s summer of Swine Flu it was a necessary precaution. If a camper had a fever, they were not allowed on the bus until they saw a doctor who could provide them with a clean bill of health.

When I arrived at camp later that morning, I was approached by one of the camp doctors. He told me that as a child of Holocaust survivors, he was appalled at the color of the staff shirts. He explained how he thought his mother (a survivor) would perceive of having people in “brown shirts” telling the Jewish children to board the buses to go to the camp only after checking to see who was healthy enough to go to the camp and who would be turned away.

For this child of Holocaust survivors, the Holocaust imagery was front and center. I immediately framed it in a different light for him. How amazing is it that some six decades after the Holocaust when Jewish children are sent to camp, it is to experience the time of their lives engaged in fun programs and Jewish activities, I asked him. Contrast that to what their great-grandparents’ generation experienced in Eastern Europe.

Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, has just passed. In the last two days I found myself immersed in the commemoration of the Holocaust. Sunday began with a speech by a Holocaust survivor, Aron Zoldan, and then later in the afternoon at the Jewish Community Center I opened the “Unto Every Person There is a Name” project by reciting the special Mourner’s Kaddish that incorporates the names of the camps into the kaddish prayer. That night, my wife and I viewed the new Anne Frank film on PBS. Last night, I facilitated a brief Holocaust commemoration and candle-lighting for Jewish teens, in which two rabbis — one the son of survivors and the other the grandson of survivors — recited the Mourner’s Kaddish.

On Sunday, as I read the names of dozens of young Jewish people from Czechoslovakia and France who perished in the Holocaust, my attention shifted to this generation’s Jewish youth. Think about the many opportunities Jewish youth have today. Watching the Anne Frank film, I again directed my thoughts to how free Jewish teenagers are today. Anne and her sister Margot lost the freedom of their teenage years while hiding in the annex.

Today, Jewish teens fly to Poland on the “March of the Living” program and march into the death camps. The difference, of course, is that after seeing the burial grounds of millions of people these teens then march out of the camps. The teens then travel to Israel to experience the modern Jewish homeland, a nation many argue was built on the ashes of the Nazi Holocaust.

In much the same way that camp doctor was troubled by the Holocaust connection of “brown shirts” determining which Jewish children were healthy enough to be sent to camp, an Israeli man was surprised to see the Hebrew term “machanot” used as a translation of summer camps. Last summer, an Israeli counselor at my Jewish summer camp posted a photo on Facebook of a sign hanging in our dining hall that included the Hebrew word “machanot,” meaning camps. A fellow Israeli commented on her photo that he was troubled by the term since it refers to the camps during the Holocaust.

For so many, the Holocaust imagery and terminology cannot be escaped. The human tragedy of the Holocaust is so much a part of Jewish identity, both person and communal, that nary a day goes by that Jewish people do not consider the six million murdered by the Nazis.

The fact that “the camps” means something so starkly different than “camp” is powerful. An 80-year-old Jewish man might ask a contemporary, “Which camp did you go to?” And that question means something so different than when a 30-year-old Jewish man asks his contemporary, “Which camp did you go to?”

Walking down the main road of my camp, it is difficult to miss the beautiful Irv Berg sculptures that honor those who were murdered by the Nazis. And on the summer fast day of Tisha B’Av, we remember the victims of the Holocaust in words and art and music. The hundreds of smiles seen each summer day on the faces of the Jewish children at camp is a wonderful tribute to the millions of our people who perished in the Holocaust. The Jewish people have indeed endured and thrived in the decades since World War II.

Thankfully, our generation’s “camp” is 180 degrees from what “camp” meant to a previous generation. May the memories of those who lost their lives in the Holocaust be an enduring blessing and a constant encouragement that humanity never again allows such a tragedy to occur.

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