The Case for Making Jewish Summer Camp More Affordable

Jewish day school parents will soon be sitting in crowded movie theaters able to relate with the family on the big screen. “That’s us!” they’ll say as they watch Zach Braff and Kate Hudson star in the upcoming movie “Wish I Was Here.” In the film, which premiered last month at the Sundance Film Festival and has raised over $3 million of its $2 million goal on Kickstarter, Zach Braff plays Aidan Bloom. Bloom is a struggling actor living in suburban Los Angeles with his wife (Kate Hudson) and their two children. The couple is forced to pull their children from their Jewish day school after his dad, played by Mandy Patinkin, announces he is suffering from cancer and will no longer be able to pay tuition. Rather than send them to the local public school, Braff’s character decides to home school the kids.Zach Braff co-wrote the script with his brother Adam. He told the Hollywood Reporter that it’s based on their real life childhood. “It was kind of a combination of both of our lives,” he said, according to The Hollywood Reporter. “We did have a very strong Conservative/Orthodox upbringing.” Many families will be able to commiserate with the challenge of affording day school tuition.

And when parents choose to send the children to Jewish overnight camp in addition to Jewish day school, the bills really start adding up. Just ask any Jewish family that sends their children to private Jewish day school and a Jewish summer camp about the affordability of such endeavors and they’ll use words such as “sacrifice,” “hardship” and “priorities.” With the cost of Jewish day school tuition for one child varying from $10,000 all the way up to $40,000 per year, more Jewish families who desire a day school Jewish education for their children are finding it cost prohibitive even with financial aid.

Add to those rising costs, the additional expense of a month or two at a Jewish summer camp and families are having to just say “no” to their kids. In the new economy, the Jewish middle class has virtually vanished. Many families who once would be considered upper middle class are forking over their tax returns hoping for subsidies to make day school and camp tuition affordable. New organizations like the Affordable Jewish Education Project (AJEP) are sprouting up seeking to imagine alternative solutions to the economic crisis. Plain and simple it’s becoming cost prohibitive to raise a Jewish family according to the values of day school and summer camp.

 

Campers and staff at Camp Tamarack in Ortonville, Michigan

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Technology for Boomers: Bridging the Tech Generation Gap

For the second year Adat Shalom Synagogue brought two generations together for “Tech Connect.” This program, conceived of by Charlotte Dubin and endowed in memory of her late husband Harold, has Jewish teens teaching the older generation about new technology. Tech Connect II took place on two Sundays at the Farmington Hills-based Conservative synagogue.
A teen and a senior at Adat Shalom Synagogue’s 2nd annual Tech Connect

 

As I did at the inaugural Tech Connect, I opened the program with some thoughts on how technology has changed our lives. After speaking about how the Internet can be used these days to do everything from purchase an airline ticket to order photo prints of grandchildren to download a new pattern for the sewing machine, I watched as savvy teens assisted computer-challenged boomers with notebook computers and tablets. It struck me that this program should be replicated around the world because there are many Boomers and seniors who do not have young grandchildren around to help learn today’s tech gadgets.

 

Randi Zuckerberg of Zuckerberg Media with Rabbi Jason Miller at CES 2014

 

In her book “Dot Complicated,” Randi Zuckerberg writes about something that many of us have recognized. The older generations learn from the younger generations when it comes to computers and technology. I can’t count the number of times an adult has remarked to me how a child taught them to use a new smartphone. Perhaps this is no different than generations ago when adults couldn’t program a VCR or answering machine and relied on their children to do it.

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Hasidic Dancing in Traffic on the Highway

A group of Hasidic students (bachurim) from Michigan were caught simcha dancing on Interstate I-80 during a four-hour traffic standstill over three years ago. However, the news report with a short video clip is once again making the rounds on the Web.Most likely this fun video has found new life following the many snow-related traffic issues around the country, most notably the traffic standstill in Atlanta which Jon Stewart dubbed “South Parked” on The Daily Show.

 

Hasidic Jewish dancing during traffic jam on interstate I-80

Watching this video reminded me of R.E.M.’s great video for “Everybody Hurts,” in which the band is stuck in a traffic jam along the double deck portions of I-10 near the I-35 Interchange in Downtown San Antonio, Texas. The music video shows the people in other cars while subtitles of their thoughts appear on screen. At the end of the video directed by Jake Scott, all the people leave their cars and walk instead; then they vanish. The video was heavily inspired by the traffic jam in the opening dream sequence of Fellini’s 8½. Instead of getting out and just walking around, these five young guys turned up the music and started dancing like they were at a freilich (fun) wedding.

I was also reminded of the time as a pre-teen when my family was driving back from Toronto and a two-hour standstill ensued on the highway. My brother and I took our baseball mitts and a baseball out of the car and started playing catch on the side of the highway. The moral of the story is that highway standstills are horrible, but you have to make the best out of the situation.

Here’s the video of the I-80 dancing.


Interpreting Law and Wisdom: Cleromancy in the Jewish Faith

I have long been an opponent of gambling. A decade ago I wrote a letter to the Michigan Daily newspaper about the consequences gambling addicts face and why it’s praiseworthy to try to deter young people from gambling. Here are some further thoughts about gambling in Jewish law and its moral prohibitions.

A fastidious hermeneutic approach addresses the question of morality and right action from a legal standpoint, something emphasised in the written and oral Jewish tradition over and over again in order to live a life of piety. Good exegesis also takes contextual clues into account when specific cases of ethical action are not tackled. After all, not every issue we face in modern society is delineated in the Tanakh (the canon of the Hebrew Bible, consisting of the Torah, the Nevi’im, or the Ketuvim – the equivalent of the Pentateuch, the books of Wisdom Poetry, and the canon of Major and Minor Prophets found respectively in the Old Testament); the Targumim (the orally transmitted, Rabbinic commentary of Jewish scripture); or the Talmud, a compendium of the Oral Torah and commentary on it consisting of the Mishnah and the Gemara.

Traditional philosophy and teaching in Judaism, while very clear on certain moral prohibitions and rituals such as kosher diet, the conducting of business, and observance of the Shabbat and religious holidays, is not black and white on every topic. Halakha, or the path a devout Jew is supposed to follow as outlined by the Jewish law, is open to interpretation in many cases, and a balanced hermeneutic will take certain themes and principals into account when addressing modern ethical questions like birth control techniques, biotechnology, and modern warfare. With that in mind, the issue of gambling stands as a case study in the interpretation and application of principles in Judaism to practice in Jewish life.

Cleromancy was a common activity in ancient times and with the proliferation of new bingo sites as this one, it is perhaps an even more pertinent question that needs addressing in this day and age.  Gambling is not directly addressed in the Jewish scriptures, and is only partially elaborated on in various Rabbinic commentaries. For the Jew who wishes to be devout, kabbalah – the receiving of inner wisdom through prayerful meditation on scripture and use of God-given intuition – is something he will have to rely on to come to a conclusion that he can carry with a good conscience.

Let us take a look at some of the legal arguments made surrounding the morality of gambling according to Rabbinic texts; because there is nothing definitive on the matter, a look into general themes will be necessary to discern the moral course of action when it comes to gambling.

The Legality of Gambling

Divination is an activity whereby, in biblical times, the Jewish (or pagan) practitioner might have attempted to ascertain the will of Yahweh by ‘casting lots:’ the ostensibly random outcome of an event like rolling dice is considered the providence of the divine, thus the intention of the most high is revealed. This is something that is mentioned is several places in the Tanakh for different purposes: to decide which of a couple of goats should be offered to Yahweh and the deity Azazel in blood-atoning sacrifice (Leviticus 16: 810); to divide territory (Joshua 15 and Numbers 26: 15); in Jonathon’s affair (Samuel 14: 423); to decide the best time for Haman to destroy the Jews (Esther 3: 7); and perhaps most famously, to decide amongst the sailors who would be thrown off the boat for their culpability in causing a storm (this particular episode did not end well for the prophet as recounted in the eponymous book, Jonah 1: 7).

While casting lots was not gambling per se, the context of it being mentioned in the Torah, the Nevi’im, and the Ketuvim were enough for German halakhist (an authoritative commentator on proper legal and moral proceeding) Bacharach to conclude that raffle as an activity was a legitimate form of discerning the will of God through the winner of said endeavour. He quotes the Wisdom Poetry in Proverbs 16: 33 to support his exegesis: ‘the lot is cast into the lap; but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord.’

The case of a trustworthy witness to testify in a Jewish court of law is brought up in the Mishnah (Rosh Ha-Shanah 1: 8 and Sanhedrin 3: 3). Of the two kinds mentioned, one type of gambler is a chronic bettor, has no occupation, and is disqualified as a candidate because he is deemed untrustworthy. The other type of gambler is considered a thief because he wins money from a loser who does not expect to lose, and thus relinquishes his losses reluctantly. This is considered a form of stealing by rabbis who argue that there is no legal entitlement to the earnings for the winner in this arrangement. While this may all sound esoteric, it forms a basis for the interpretation of an activity that, while common at the time and not considered egregious enough to outright deem a sin, was not looked kindly upon through the lens of Rabbinic analysis.

An Interpretation of Best Action

From the perspective of Kabbalah, following a wise life involves being a good steward of one’s time on earth; not fraternising with unscrupulous characters whose influence might rub off on you; or frivolously spending financial blessings on activities that are not investing in the amelioration of one’s surroundings or the community at large. The wise path, then, would dictate that if one is to partake in the activity of gambling, it should be with a keen awareness towards the temptation of addiction (the gambler with no other vocation first cited above is a close parallel to this vice). It should also be undertaken with a keen eye towards balance in the context of one’s life and leisure activity.

In other words, while gambling might not be recommendable, it is technically permissible, and should be approached cautiously. Pleasure is certainly a spiritual principle (see: Shir Hashirim, the Song of Songs), but can be pursued within moderation.

Plastic Surgeon Michael Gray Reconstructs the Social Network

I jumped at the opportunity as soon as I received the press release from Jackie Headapohl, the editor at The Detroit Jewish News, asking me if I’d like to interview Dr. Michael Gray, the well-known plastic surgeon here in Michigan. The press release described a new social network called Pegged that Dr. Gray had created. It sounded as if this cosmetic surgeon was about to give Facebook a Face Lift. I spent an hour in Dr. Gray’s office learning about Pegged and the entire time I kept thinking that people will both love and hate this controversial social networking site. Here’s the front page article from this week’s Detroit Jewish News:

Plastic Surgeon Reconstructs Social Media

Dr. Michael Gray, a popular and successful plastic surgeon, spends his days transforming the way people look on the outside. But one thing he can’t do is fix who they are on the inside. That doesn’t mean he isn’t interested in trying though.

Dr. Michael Gray - Pegged

 

Gray, who is from New York, heads the Michigan Cosmetic Surgery Center and Skin Deep Spa in West Bloomfield. He wondered whether he could at least learn more about people’s character on the inside and create a social platform that would force them to try and change themselves internally. “The world is broken. What if we had a resource to assess who we meet? Would we be able to make better decisions about what we do in life? Would people be self-reflective after they get a review? Would they change?”

 

Gray felt the social networking sites already in existence, like Facebook, were not helpful because the users were in control of their profiles and able to create the type of persona they wanted to portray. So Gray began to envision a social networking site that would promote greater self-awareness and help people become better. What he came up with will no doubt be met with mixed reactions.

 

A NEW SOCIAL NETWORK

Pegged (pegged.com) will be controversial. The networking site (a mobile app is in production and will be released soon) will be a painful reality for many people. All social networking sites currently allow users to create their own profile, but in an interesting twist on the idea of social network profile creation, Pegged allows someone else to create a person’s profile. If you don’t like the waitress at the restaurant you can “peg” her by creating an account and detailing why she missed the mark. If a former friend is spreading rumors about you, you’ll have the opportunity to publicly call them out on their transgression. On the other end, the site will be beneficial for those looking to hire or date someone with more accurate data available for background checks.

Dr. Michael Gray - Pegged

“When I hire staff for my practice every candidate looks great on their resume and in their initial interview,” Gray explained. “It usually takes about six months for their true colors to show. I just don’t have time for that so I want to be able to look someone up and immediately understand what type of person they really are.”

 

Gray believes the “opinion-built profile” through the assessment of others will be a tool that could allow Pegged to ultimately make humanity better. While the process won’t be without pain, he thinks it will be a path to insight. “The web and mobile app will be entertaining and fun, but at its core, the intention is to bring people into accountability for their interactions with others, and to offer them opportunities for self-reflection and growth.”

 

HOW IT WORKS

Through the comments and ratings made by others on a profile, Pegged follows people in their daily lives of social interaction and assigns them a “humanity score.” Over time, a graph will be produced showing the ups and downs (positives and negatives) of the quality of that person’s interactions chronologically in their lifetime. Gray believes this graph will provide users with valuable information about whether or not to date, hire, work for, or join a group with another person. Individuals will rate and review each other anonymously which will no doubt be one of the more controversial aspects of the site.

 

Concerned about bullying, Gray insists that there are many safe-guards built into the system so that no one is being rated based on religion, gender, race, age, or sexual orientation, and there is always the opportunity to respond to any comment. Gray won’t get into the way in which Pegged will prevent bullying, but says it will be similar to the measures Facebook implements to keep hate speech and abuse off their site. In an effort to resolve conflict between two parties, Gray is hoping to add a basis for mediation on the site.

 

The most controversial element of this platform is that even if a person chooses to live anonymously and social-media-free, unless one avoids people all together, someone will eventually join him or her to the website. “You can live like an ostrich with your head in the sand and pretend Pegged doesn’t exist, or you can participate and maintain some control through responding to posts about you,” Gray says. “Of course you will get people who lie, or who are haters, but in the long run, I believe that if you’re a good person, it’s going to pan out.”

 

Dr. Michael Gray is known for helping people improve their external image, but in this new endeavor he might have created the technology to help people do their own surgery on their character. Perhaps Pegged will be a tool to better help individuals prepare for the process of repentance on Yom Kippur.

 

Bidding on The World to Come on eBay

Those who read Milton Steinberg’s masterpiece novel “As a Driven Leaf” will remember that eternal life is a reward given for the fulfillment of two mitzvot (commandments), namely the honoring of one’s parents and the shooing of the mother bird from the nest before taking her eggs. However, yesterday those who wanted to taste eternal life could have simply logged into the preeminent online auction website eBay.com and offered a bid on heaven.

 

Ari Mandel of Teaneck, New Jersey, a self-proclaimed former Ultra-Orthodox Jew, listed his place in The World To Come on eBay for a mere 99 cents. Titled “My Portion in Olam Habaah (Heaven)”, Mandel says he did it as a joke and didn’t expect that bidders would bid it up to $100,000.

 

eBay user Ari Mandel auctioned off his portion of the World to Come on eBay

 

Since the auction “item” violated eBay’s terms of service it was quickly taken down from the website. Mandel told the Jewish Daily Forward that “it was a joke that ran away from me… when it reached $100,000 I didn’t really expect to get that money. It was nice to fantasize, but I didn’t think it was going to happen.”

 

Mandel, 31, included several references to the Jewish concept of Olam Habah (the World to Come) and used common Yiddish phrases in his auction listing. He claims to have simply done this as a joke and tells those who took it seriously or were offended by his harmless prank to “chill out”.

 

The Forward reports that Mandel was raised in an ultra-Orthodox community in upstate New York, but left the community about seven years ago. He is now a divorced father of one child and a student who works as a part-time translator. While eBay didn’t allow his auction to last very long, he was able to get his joke spread pretty wide thanks to the speed of the Internet. For those who held out hope that they could really get a spot in heaven by a simple click of a computer mouse button and a six-figure payment, keep working on it. You’ll have to go back to honoring your parents and shooing away mother birds.

 

This isn’t the first time that eBay has been used to auction off an intangible Jewish concept. Back in 2006 on this blog I wrote about a man who used eBay to auction off his chametz (leavened products) before Passover (see below). It turned out to be a great way to raise money for the Ziv Tzedakah Fund, Danny Siegel’s wonderful nonprofit organization.

 

 

Opening the Doors of Jewish Education

I’ve been thinking a lot about the term “Opening the Doors” and Jewish education lately. For the past several years I’ve been a committee member of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit’s “Opening the Doors Program” which advocates for students with diverse learning or behavioral challenges so they are able to participate in a quality Jewish educational environment with their peers.

 

Run locally in Michigan through the Federation’s Alliance for Jewish Education, the Opening the Doors Program currently empowers nearly 1,000 students. I became involved with the program in 2008 as the director of ATID: Alliance for Teens in Detroit, the Metro Detroit area Conservative Movement’s weekly Hebrew High School program. Working with the Opening the Doors director Ellen Maiseloff we were able to place a paraprofessional in our program to ensure that the teens with learning challenges were able to participate in the classes without too many problems.

 

Detroit’s Opening the Doors Program celebrates 18 years of helping Jewish students with learning challenges

 


The Opening the Doors program is celebrating its 18th year this evening and will feature attorney Richard Bernstein, a national advocate for people with disabilities (Ricky and I attended Andover High School together in the early 90s). I love the name of the program because it truly does open the doors of Jewish education for so many young people who suffer from learning disabilities. For far too long the public schools were putting the necessary resources in place to help students with learning and behavioral challenges, but our Jewish day schools and complementary schools (Hebrew schools) were lagging behind. The Opening the Doors program has made it possible for so many students with learning challenges to be able to succeed in Jewish learning endeavors with the appropriate level of assistance.

 

I’ve also been thinking about the term “Opening the Doors” as it relates to Jewish education lately because a woman who opened the doors for me to become a Jewish educator passed away last week. Aviva Hoffman of East Lansing had been a Hebrew School teacher for several decades when she was diagnosed with advanced stage breast cancer in the summer of 1994. She was slated to teach the 4th grade class at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in East Lansing three days a week, but her cancer treatment schedule would make that an impossibility. Her husband and the rabbi of the synagogue, Rabbi Mort Hoffman, was told that an incoming freshman at Michigan State University might be able to fill in for his wife. That freshman was me.

 

With Rabbi Mort Hoffman in May 1998 and in April 2013 (a month before his wife Aviva passed away)

Before classes began that semester in late August 1994 Rabbi Hoffman called me in my dorm room on Michigan State’s campus in South Case Hall and explained the situation. He told me that his wife, a native Israeli, would be undergoing treatment for breast cancer and would not be able to teach. He told me he would provide me with more details when we met and he sent a taxi to pick me up and bring me to the synagogue. In his office, he assured me that I wasn’t too young to teach ten hours a week of Hebrew School (I had just turned 18). He gave me a key to the synagogue building and the alarm code, showing me how to lock up on Tuesdays and Thursdays after I finished teaching. A few weeks later he added a high school class to my weekly schedule of teaching (a few of the students in that class were older than I was by a couple months).

 

As it turned out Aviva Hoffman’s cancer treatment was successful but she chose to retire rather than return to teaching. And so I continued to teach those 4th grade students for the next three years preparing them for bar and bat mitzvah. I’m still in touch with a handful of those students today (one just announced on Facebook that she’s expecting her first baby). Aviva Hoffman might never have realized that she opened the doors of Jewish education for me as a teacher, but I am grateful that her husband called me almost twenty years ago. Had he not, I likely would not be a rabbi today.

 

The doors of Jewish education must open for students with learning challenges. They also must open to provide opportunities for potential teachers. I am grateful for Metro Detroit’s “Opening the Doors” program and I salute it on its 18th anniversary. The student helped by the resources of this program could become one of tomorrow’s most important Jewish educators. And I am also grateful for that phone call I received from Rabbi Mort Hoffman back in 1994. Whether he (or Aviva) realized it at the time, he truly opened the doors of Jewish education for me as a teacher.

 

May the memory of Aviva Hoffman, a beloved Jewish educator, endure for blessings.

Alexander Gould Goes From Weeds to Israel

Last night Showtime aired the 100th episode of its long-running hit Weeds. However, one of the show’s most popular actors wasn’t watching it when it was first shown since it was the middle of the night for him.

Alexander Gould plays “Shane Botwin” on Weeds, a show about a middle class family from California that gets into the marijuana growing and distribution business after the head of the family suddenly dies. Over the course of the past eight seasons Gould’s character has transitioned from a little boy to a young man before our eyes. He has shot a mountain lion, made a terrorist video in which he beheads a little girl, bit his opponent’s foot in a karate match, murdered his mother’s Mexican nemesis, lost his virginity, become a police officer, and stolen a gang banger’s sports car. But that was just acting.

Alexander Gould (far right) moves into Beit Nativ with his USY peers.

Now, he’s putting his acting career aside for the year and is adjusting to life in Israel. While fans of the show watched last night as the Botwins returned to their roots in Agrestic, Alex Gould was sleeping in his bed at Beit Nativ in Jerusalem.

Gould is a participant on United Synagogue Youth (USY)’s gap year program called Nativ (Hebrew for “path”). Like other 18-year-old Nativers, Gould is studying in Jerusalem and will volunteer in other areas of Israel. He’s currently studying at Hebrew University on Mt. Scopus (Nativers choose between the Hebrew U. track, an Ulpan — intensive Hebrew language class — or the Conservative Yeshiva). Early next year, he’ll begin his community service project in Yerucham. Following Nativ, Gould will begin college at Clark University in the fall of 2013.

Alexander Gould (far left) and fellow Nativers before Shabbat services.

Gould made his acting debut at the age of six and gained worldwide acclaim as the voice of Nemo, the title character of Disney/Pixar’s Finding Nemo animation. Before Weeds, Gould had several guest starring roles on television series like Ally McBeal, Malcolm in the Middle, Law and Order: SVU, Supernatural, and Pushing Daisies. He also was the voice of Bambi in the movie Bambi II and had a voice over role in Curious George. Gould has won awards for his voice over work and for his supporting role in Weeds. In 2007, he won Best Young Ensemble in a Feature Film for his role in How to Eat Fried Worms.

While his co-star Justin Kirk has more of a Jewish themed role and has offered more Hebrew phrases during Weeds’ eight seasons on Showtime, Gould screamed the first words of the “Shema Yisrael” during a karate match in an early episode. After spending the year in Israel and learning Hebrew, perhaps Gould will take on future roles in which Hebrew is required.

Despite his busy acting and voice over career, Gould was an active member of USY, the Conservative Movement’s youth group, during his high school years. That involvement led him to apply for the Nativ program. Rabbis and youth advisers who got to know Gould through his USY participation in the Far West region during the past few years report that he’s a great, humble kid with a lot of friends and is very funny. For Gould, spending the year on Nativ with his Jewish peers is a welcome change from being home schooled as a Hollywood actor.

While Weeds might not have caught on in Israel, it’s still likely that Alexander Gould will be recognized in Jerusalem this year. Fortunately for his teachers at Hebrew University, Gould doesn’t have the R-rated potty mouth of his TV persona.